Sunday, November 4, 2018

Review: The Woman Who Went To Space as a Man, a Baffling Space Odyssey

L-R: Nathan Nonhof, James Ferrero, Emma Zakes Green, Betsy Moore,
Megan Rippey  and Ashley Steed. All photos by Mauricio Gomez.

Maureen Huskey’s new one act play with music The Woman Who Went to Space as a Man takes place wholly in the moment before death. Conceived as a 90 minute suspension of time in which Alice B. Sheldon (Betsy Moore) watches her life pass before her eyes, it blends music, movement, sound, and text to create as enigmatic a piece as the life of its central character. Thats not necessarily a good thing.

Sheldon was a woman who never felt comfortable in her own skin. Under the pen name James Tiptree, Jr., she would become known as a pioneering science fiction writer whose stories delved into the dark reaches of the human soul. Gender discrimination, violence against women, and issues like genocide and racism would inform her works, fueled by her own experiences in the suffocating social constructs of a male-dominated world.

Born in 1915, she was 6 when her parents first took her on safari to Africa, a troubling expedition that confirmed she had no power to express herself or make sense of the questions she had about the world. During her teen years she began to explore her previously repressed attraction to women but, at 19, Sheldon eloped and spent the next several years in an abusive marriage that would eventually end in divorce.

In 1942, she joined the Army as a WAAC and later the CIA, where she met and married a man ten years her senior, Huntingdon Sheldon (Alex Wells). “Ting” as she called him, was aware of her sexual orientation and although the two did not share a romantic relationship, they were comfortable and relatively happy together. He encouraged her to write and, at the age of 50, with the protective barrier of a male pseudonym, she found the personal and creative outlet she’d always longed for.

L-R: Ashley Steed, Paula Rebelo and Betsy Moore

Huskey’s examination of the woman whose inner demons eventually got the better of her is a worthy one and imagining it as a departure from one of Tiptree’s sci-fi stories is an interesting way of presenting it. But the play meanders through Sheldon’s life as memories enacted by younger versions of herself (Isabella Ramacciotti at 6, Paula Rebello at 19) while a bewildered Moore looks on. It isn’t possible to discern if the purpose is for clarity, understanding, or simply to review a life that never let her forget she didn’t fit in. And with an ambitious array of performance disciplines employed to tell the story, which unfortunately often stretch beyond the wheelhouse of its ensemble, it loses its impact amid all the confusion.

The musical background is by world music artist Yuval Ron and is more of a soundscape than a song score. There are songs but all are forgettable within the larger context of the play, instead folding into the kind of generalized cosmic sound you’d expect to hear in a sci-fi film. The overall effect is artsy but ultimately does little to emotionally engage the audience.

Set designer Eli Smith conjures foggy images of the galaxy and Sheldon’s time machine/space ship with a minimal number of elements. A complicated series of cords is used for characters to step in and out of time periods and create visual interest in the small space. The optics work well within this abstract theatrical world Huskey has created, along with Rose Malones amorphous lighting. As the story starts to short circuit around Sheldon, Martin Carrillo’s evocative sound design takes on an urgency that underscores the play’s impending conclusion.

Though the sum of its parts does not yet add up dramatically, The Woman Who Went to Space as a Man does fit somewhat more effectively in the landscape of a theatrical tone poem. There the freer style of its content allows more room for the playwright to explore Sheldons fascinating life journey and tragic end without limits. 

October 27 – November 18, 2018
Son of Semele
3301 Beverly Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90004

L-R: Nathan Nonhof, Betsy Moore, Isabella Ramacciotti, Anneliese Euler,
Robert Paterno, Megan Rippey and Ashley Steed

L-R: Nathan Nonhof, Betsy Moore and Paula Rebelo

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