Review: Starstuff: Per Aspera Ad Astra (at the Cultch until September 20)

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“Per Aspera Ad Astra” means “Through hardships to the stars”. What I did not realize is that this phrase references a 1981 Soviet science fiction film (although while I was watching I kept on thinking that this play reminded me of the Russian science fiction that I had read) .

This play moves and weaves among multiple storylines, with an astronaut communicating with Ground Control, a pregnant couple, an adolescent hanging out in his room not responding to his mother.

When Ground Control (played by Pedro Chamale) says “Ground Control to Tom Molinsky”, I felt pretty sure that this is an allusion to David Bowie’s Space Oddity (“Ground Control to Major Tom”), which for me is an incredibly compelling song (and I will take this excuse to reference it).

Fringe constraints necessarily tend to produce sparse sets. In this case, the sparse set is fully evocative. The would-be parents hold a sheet of plywood between them to make a convincing table in a diner.

Like many current plays, this one incorporates a screen with text behind the characters. I was perhaps a bit too distracted at times, but information like the names of the people who died in various space disasters was oddly compelling, as I thought back about who I did and did not remember.

As I watched the show, I had what may be an atypical response, as I kept wanting to remember how to calculate escape velocity (I could remember learning about it, but not how to do it), and with that and the screen information I was a bit distracted at times. In order to escape the orbit of the earth, the rocket must reach a velocity that prevents earth’s gravity from pulling it back. You don’t need to know, but Wikipedia did tell me. If you need an excuse to read up on space exploration, this show provides it. But pay attention during the show.

The most lovely part of the play is the parallels drawn between space exploration and the astronaut in the comfort of his space capsule,and the fetus in the womb, and the adolescent struggling to become an adult free of his parents. All must leave their comfortable if cramped environments, and these environments can become unsafe at any moment. Life is perilous, and precious and never to be taken for granted.

The play has many cross-references and allusions, and I suspect I would get even more out of it with another viewing. But go and pay close attention. With the group I attended, we all saw different details and learned a lot from discussing it.

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