The first thing you need to know about Spaceman, the remarkable new play by Leegrid Stevens at Incubator Arts Project, is that its main character is in fact a woman: Molly Jennis, a brilliant scientist who is going to become the first human to set foot on the planet Mars. Embodying this gallant heroine is Erin Treadway, in a performance of extraordinary range and depth and mettle: this is one of the most astonishingly controlled and nuanced pieces of acting I have seen in a very long time, and anyone interested in seeing a fine actor at the peak of her powers will want to catch Spaceman and witness Treadway's work.
The second thing you need to know is that the play itself, written by the smart and talented Stevens—whose work I have published in print (Sun, Stand Thou Still, in Plays and Playwrights 2004) and online at Indie Theater Now (Themes and Variations and The Dudleys)—is superb; in every way a match to Treadway's skills. It's a blend of classic sci-fi and modern-day pop sensibility—this astronaut guest-stars on a reality TV show called "Survivor: Space" via remote video feed from her spaceship. It's also, more fundamentally, an exploration of what it means to be human. Stevens has said that the inspiration for the play was Samuel Beckett:
I wanted to riff a bit off of Happy Days... I wanted to create a situation in which a woman was removed from her body, alone, and trying to find reasons for optimism. Long term space travel felt close to that kind of situation.
The constraint of the speed of sound gives his protagonist further remove from others, for it takes ten minutes for transmissions to get from Earth to her position near Mars (25 million miles away from home). Stevens leverages all of the particularities of this situation to create a moving, wise portrait of isolation and hope. Yet it's always within the context of an adventure story about space travel, and so the essential question of survival—will Molly make it to Mars?—remains paramount.
The play is written with great humor and humanity, and we get to know a great deal about Molly during its 100 uninterrupted minutes. I want you to discover the details for yourself, but I will tell you that Molly has a very personal reason for wanting to make it to Mars. She's also frustrated by the compromises that she's required to make in order to ensure that funding for this and future missions is available; Stevens is able to pack in some cogent and honest commentary about the uneasy symbiotic relationships among politics, economics, and science in 21st century civilization.
Molly is the only character on stage throughout all but a minute or two of the play, but an abundance of unseen others—voiced superbly by Regan Adair, Yoshi Amao, Amira Anthony, Leila Anthony, Jeff Auer, Reagan Glover, Saori Goda, Kaison Louie, Mika Louie, Lynne McCullough, Andres Munar, Eric Slater, and Stevens himself—provide her with a diverse array of foils and antagonists that are vivid and individualized. The play's internal consistency is splendidly satisfying and the details of Molly's existence in space, from the ubiquitous velcro to the dizzying array of buttons and dials to the logo-laden spacesuit she is required to wear most of the time, are realized with ingenuity and humor.
Stevens has directed his play well, and with a large team of very creative collaborators he has provided Spaceman with a production design that's sophisticated and dazzlingly effective, well beyond what we expect on an indie budget, even at Richard Foreman's old stomping grounds. The enormously successful set is designed by Carolyn Mraz; costumes (that spacesuit!) are by Rabiah Troncelliti; and amazing ambient lighting is by Driscoll Otto and Simon Cleveland. Stevens designed the sound (and controls it live at the performance), from contributions by Kevin Drumm, Alva Noto, Max Bondi, Bellows, Outer Space, Aiden Baker, Ted Dockstader, Nil, Spine Scavenger, Eleh, Sleep Research Facility, Jon Mueller & James Plotkin, Nathan McLaughlin, and Daphne Oram.
I include all these names because these artists are all to be congratulated for making a work that is among the very best I have seen in the theater this year. Spaceman is a marvel of theater craft and theater art, the kind of show that holds you on the edge of your seat with its good old-fashioned showmanship while enlarging your own view of the human condition with its profundity and insight. It deserves a long life.