- In Event of Moon Disaster by Stephanie DeMott et al.
Clutching programs, biding our time, we milled about in the crowded basement lobby of Z Below, one of San Francisco’s major venues for experimental theatre. Publicity materials explained that In Event of Moon Disaster, devised by local performance troupe Mugwumpin, was inspired by the text of an actual speech prepared for President Richard Nixon, to be delivered should the Apollo XI astronauts have perished in space. We knew little more. Among us wove three figures in white-and-silver jumpsuits. As they bantered and argued, we eventually caught their names: the woman, Echo (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart); the man, Delta (Don Wood); the girl, November (Nayeli Rodriguez). We also began to piece together a scenario out of fragmentary clues: these three figures were a “follow team,” the second half of a lunar expedition. Their mission was to blast off for a rendezvous with their “advance team” on the far side of the moon, once they received the go-ahead transmission.
Over the course of the next ninety minutes, however, it gradually became clear that Moon Disaster’s fictional scenario supplied the platform rather than the raison d’être for the piece, a choreographic drama of ideas that probed the bewildered disheartenment at the core of contemporary culture. Exploration of the cosmos functioned as a metaphor for the inward delving for self-knowledge, the outward reach toward love, the backward look toward enduring wisdom, and the forward-facing advance on an unknowable future, at a historical moment when traditional systems of meaning have broken down. The play’s script was skillfully engineered to produce a mental toggling between two ways of interpreting its most crucial moments and utterances: within the fiction, and/or mapped onto the broader existential drama of humanity. This interpretive shuttling back and forth was, in fact, the performance’s signature cognitive, and philosophical, operation.
Prologue dispatched, the members of the follow team shepherded us from the lobby into the black-box space. We entered a world of blue light, celestial soundscapes, and projections of a full moon seen through moving clouds. At the center of the stage stood Echo, in the role of a shaman or Prospero-figure, conjuring a new reality into existence with mysterious gestures. Throughout the performance, the audience was charged with parsing out and decoding several distinct physical vocabularies. Sometimes the actors mimed recognizable actions associated with space exploration: moving through air hatches, putting on helmets, clicking away at computer consoles, even performing weightless acrobatics (enabled by back-to-back lifts). At other times, as in Echo’s opening ritual, the actors’ gestures seemed to evoke an esoteric sign language or the casting of spells.
The follow team withdrew, and the two astronauts in the advance team took center stage. As Sierra Delta (Stephanie DeMott) and Sierra Sierra (Soren Santos) went about their technical tasks on the far side of the moon, their conversation revealed a clash [End Page 545] of worldviews: Sierra Sierra embodied an optimistic faith in rationality and order, but Sierra Delta was more willing to acknowledge the precarious uncertainty of the human condition. The drama’s major inciting incident came when the two astronauts discovered that they could no longer recognize the surrounding stars—an unnerving moment that cast them, suddenly, as representatives of our hyper-modern culture, struggling to orient themselves in relation to vanished reference points. As Sierra Delta and Sierra Sierra argued over their predicament—and as the follow team on earth became aware that something might have gone terribly wrong on the lunar surface—the philosophical concerns encoded in the play’s “lost in space” scenario came to the fore: How do we navigate our lives and relationships while acknowledging the mysteries of the self, the unfathomability of others, and the limits of our very capacity to understand?
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