KPBS AIRDATE: AUGUST 11, 2000
We often speak of communication as a machine. It breaks down; it needs repair. The metaphor is incredibly apt in our technological times, where our vast array of communication devices is ironically, separating us more than ever, making real communication ever more distant and difficult. As the world shrinks, we are both more — and less — accessible to each other.
In a unique, fanciful, totally intriguing and inventive way, Scottish playwright David Greig has captured the international, multitasking, multimedia nature of our society. His head-spinning play sports a provocative title: “The Cosmonaut’s Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union.” We’re disoriented in time and place as the action unfolds simultaneously in five locales: England, Scotland, France, Norway and Outer Space.
In Mark Wendland’s brilliant scenic design, two cosmonauts, suspended in an open steel capsule, revolve above the stage; one even takes a space-walk. Down below, weaving their way around various metallic stanchions and constructions, dyads come together and separate, connect and abruptly disconnect. Communication consistently breaks down. Isolation is endemic.
The cosmonauts have been forgotten in space a dozen years ago, by a country that no longer exists. A husband and wife have nothing to talk about when the TV goes on the fritz. A man can’t recall the name of his former lover. A speech pathologist tries to reach a stroke patient. A Frenchman tries to contact space aliens. An international negotiator is overly polite to a prostitute.
The scenes change breathlessly, and we keep trying to sort it out. Is this all a dream, and if so, whose? Is the English hooker the same woman as the Scottish wife, or just the same actress? Why do the same phrases and images keep recurring? How do these characters connect? And do we care?
The answer is a resounding yes. In a magical sleight of hand, writer Greig and director Neel Keller make us care very much about these damaged souls, because we see in them our lives and our comparable challenges of love, loyalty and identity in an ever-alienating world.
This is theater that makes you sweat, makes you think and makes you glad you’ve experienced it. It’s by far Keller’s best work to date, and his technical team is outstanding. The extremely versatile, 7-member cast plays 13 varied roles, though the accents (especially the Scottish) come and go. But the play, a meditation on the state of our disunion, is captivating, often thrilling. And by making the audience bring their own intellect and imagination to the proceedings, the production achieves theater nirvana: genuine bilateral communication.
©2001 Patté Productions Inc.