There are many breathtaking visual effects in the Magic Theatre's world premiere production of Expedition 6. Created and directed by acclaimed actor/director/producer Bill Pullman, and billed as "an imaginative docudrama exploring the personal and political life-and-death crisis of two American astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut stranded in space after the Columbia shuttle disaster," the show utilizes trapeze choreography as both a figurative and literal metaphor for the danger and beauty of weightlessness in space. When these daring actors swing through the dark fly-space above the stage, sometimes passing perilously close not only to each other, but also to structural support beams and the heads of some audience members, it's a truly spine-tingling effect. Unfortunately, these moments, as well as many other remarkable effects created by set/lighting designer Kate Boyd, essentially serve as visual rewards for a rather aimless if not downright confusing script.
Presented as the highlight of a partnership between the Magic and the Chabot Space & Science Center, Expedition 6 incorporates writings by astronauts, NASA reports and other source materials as the bulk of the spoken dialogue. (An exhibit of space-flown objects on loan from The W Foundation accompanied the production, but was only on view through September 16.) The production does illuminate many interesting facts about the United States' space exploration program, the psychological and physical effects of life in space, the doomed Columbia mission, and the men who were trapped aboard the International Space Station for four months.
Many might not recall that back in early 2003, with the build-up of coalition forces in the Middle East, the media paid comparatively little attention to the Columbia shuttle disaster, and even less to the destiny of the three men who were effectively trapped on the space station with no plan for getting back to Earth. While the relationship between all of these events -- and the societal fallout which still resonates today -- is certainly worthy of discussion, it's a formidable amount of territory to cover in a little over two hours on a stage.
Still, there are some fine and even nuanced performances by this hard-working ensemble, particularly the three men at the heart of the story: Robert Karma Robinson and Brent Rose as the American astronauts and Justin Walvoord as the Russian cosmonaut. And not enough can be said about the spectacular aerial choreography by Robert Davidson, Director of Movement Choreography at the Denver Theatre Center's National Theatre Conservatory, where the show was first developed.
While it's certainly a highly creative and admirable work-in-progress, too often Expedition 6 falls into a black hole of theatrical ARTINESS, especially when Pullman and his collaborators throw in what feel like obligatory anti-Bush proclamations and socio-political commentary about the culture of Islam. When asked why he chose to explore this topic in a performance art setting, Pullman said, "I was compelled to search out data from every perspective that could make sense of the Iraq issue, the future of the space program, and the fate of these astronauts orbiting the Earth while the world was polarizing below them. Outwardly, I functioned, but I spoke in fragments about the things I was reading and trying to sort out. I needed the theater." Indeed, like the thoughts and ideas which inspired its creator, Expedition 6 is essentially a series of sometimes puzzling fragments which, regrettably, never quite come together.
Expedition 6 runs through October 7, 2007. For tickets and information visit magictheatre.org.