Life On (the way to) Mars: Loading Dock Theatre’s Spaceman with the Wild Project

Credit: Clinton B Photography

NOTE: SPACEMAN is indefinitely postponed, but is slated to re-launch on a future date.

I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today
–David Bowie

I haven’t followed Mars One’s efforts to land humans on the Red Planet (thank you SPACEFACT 8 in the program). And my awareness of the exigencies of space travel has come largely from a few feature films.

So, the post-show conversation went something like this:

Me: “So no humans have ever made it there yet— only the rover?”

D: “Yeah. The expectation is that you’ll die before you arrive. There’s talk of putting astronauts in comas with feeding tubes for the months it would take to get there and then waking them up a week out. And, even if you make it, it’s pretty much known that’s it’s a one-way trip.”

Me: “So the expectation is that you either die, or figure out how to set up a colony?”

Within these dire conditions— poised between imminent death and impossible hope— floats Spaceman’s Commander Molly Jennis (Erin Treadway), a hardy Texan scientist and melancholic widow with zero desire to return to Earth. Molly’s been alone in space for seven months, on a mission to complete her astronaut husband Harry’s prior, and fatal attempt to reach Mars. The show viscerally conveys the exceptionality of space life (it’s really loud!), all the while relating it to earthly ontological questions: Is this really it? Is there such a thing as the afterlife?

Spaceman opens with a deafening thrumming that vibrates the floor and shakes us in our seats like an IMAX experience. Asleep in her white captain chair, Molly’s hands float in the anti-gravity of set designer Carolyn Mraz’s stunning steel-caged spacepod until triumphant classical music and bright fluorescent light tubes signal the start of an arbitrary new day in the diminished light of outer space. One month away from a possible Mars landing, Molly has managed to keep it together, relying upon the computerized companionship of “mission buddy” Jim and her own running stir-crazed monologue that veers from rational to unhinged.

Upon waking with a piercing headache and nausea due to low oxygen levels, she imagines frying bacon before she sucks down a bland white food pouch. A disembodied black-glove that charmingly simulates the lack of gravity retrieves her pouches, hands her a clipboard, and so begins her routinized equipment checks, communication with ground control, and a ‘shower’ with ineffective wipes. Her eyesight has begun to deteriorate and she exercises to combat muscle atrophy and bone loss. Because of the impending possibility of a solar flare she’s instructed to put on her suit (which she hates because it now smells like poop). Space travel stinks, but actress Treadway masterfully holds us for over 90-minutes of an intense endurance event of a performance. In addition to verbal stamina, she also subtly simulates an untethered body within Mraz’s suspended, floorless metal ship ingeniously crafted with silver piping and planks.

We watch Molly crack under the extreme opposing pressures of space travel’s mundane isolation and the constant threat of destruction. In a day, Molly talks to her plant-friend “Sip” (much like Tom Hanks and his soccer ball in Castaway), listens to a football game, and survives the terrifying impact of an asteroid. She also struggles with the very personal challenge to survive alongside the necessity to uphold a public persona who appeases detractors, fields kid’s questions, and performs zany tricks for global television.

Molly’s spacesuit is covered with major sponsorship logos: Amazon, Google, CNN, Coca-Cola, BP, Starbucks. And in a 60 Minutes interview she’s asked how she plans to follow-up on Neil Armstrong’s first Moon landing words. The whole world watches, and as she readies to say the words: “mankind will continue to leap until, at last, it soars,” she also pines for a fantasy reunion with her lost-in-space husband. Twice, a tiny astronaut floats unseen through the dark outside of her spaceship.

So when she accidentally sleeps for 21 hours, right through the alarms, and majorly flubs some interviews, she knows she’s irrevocably jeopardized the mission. In the five-minute delay before proof gets back to Earth, she rashly pulls the communication cords. She then endures a spectacularly rendered solar flare by Leegrid Stevens (writer/sound design) and Simon Cleveland (lighting design). Her illuminated face in the space mask glows a horrifying radiation-green as aurora borealis like purple lights crackle around her, and our stem-cell supporting atheist declares: “Everything is alive! There’s life out here.”  

Spaceman explores the related zeal of scientific progress and religious faith. The unknown and imagined expanse of space becomes synonymous at times with something like Heaven: “It’s like a graveyard out there,” she tells us, recalling Christa McAuliffe and others. Jennis believes she’ll find Harry, and in the fever dream of the show’s ending, he arrives onboard, full-sized and extremely sunburnt. They kiss.

I didn’t need Harry to return; it detracted from Treadway’s fully committed performance and the ways the show asked us to playfully suspend disbelief. I was weirdly more moved when she lost A.I. Jim in the solar flare because Treadway so convincingly rendered the precariousness of her profound physical and mental dependence on inanimate others and wires. Nonetheless, the show asks us to wonder with Molly, what’s worse: harboring false hope or living without it at all? Setting out for Mars, or helplessly star-gazing?

Spaceman’s intensely vivid spectacle renders how life aboard a spaceship, without the possibility of return, is extraordinarily different from the Blue Planet grind. But, akin to our days bound by gravity, sometimes hours can’t go by fast enough, and at others, irreversible change happens in seconds. During opening night’s curtain call, Treadway tripped over an onstage speaker. She immediately rose up and raised her arms like a triumphant Olympian— a well-earned gesture after her impressive performance. Unfortunately, she fractured both arms and a wrist. The show has been indefinitely cancelled, but is slated to re-launch. In the meantime, as Commander Jennis tells us: “carpe the shit out of this diem.”

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