Review: The cosmonaut’s last message to the woman he once loved in the former Soviet Union (Canadian Stage)

Canadian Stage presents the Canadian premiere of Scottish playwright David Greig’s The cosmonaut’s last message to the woman he once loved in the former Soviet Union from April 16 to May 14, 2011 at the Bluma Appel Theatre

 

The Canadian Stage premiere of The cosmonaut’s last message to the woman he once loved in the former Soviet Union seemed appropriately timed to coincide with the recent 50th anniversary of the first manned space flight, made by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in 1961.

Being someone who takes an interest in space travel and the history of spaceflight, I’m always fascinated to see theatrical works that explore the subject. Years ago I was awed by Robert Lepage’s play La face cachée de la lune; a stunning, deeply cerebral and surprisingly moving character study in which he explores the strained relationship between two brothers using the space race between the US and the USSR as a parallel for their relationship.

The cosmonaut’s last message was inspired by the story of Sergei Krikalyov, a cosmonaut on a mission aboard the space station Mir when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. He was effectively stranded in space for 300 days and returned home to an entirely new country.

The play tells the story of several characters who are searching for their own sense of home in some way; two forgotten cosmonauts orbiting endlessly in space, a Scottish couple in a failing marriage, a Russian stripper, a French SETI scientist and a Norwegian diplomat. These characters’ lives intersect and intertwine throughout the course of the show.

The director’s notes for the play allude to some grandiose ideas like relating the notion of “home” to our own sense of self-identity and the idea that “home” is not a fixed, static place but rather a construct shaped by our social interactions with others. Although these concepts make for an interesting subtext to a play, I didn’t feel as though the script itself was able to explore these topics in a satisfying way.

Unfortunately, Cosmonaut failed to connect with me. The play has too many characters and none of them really develop in any interesting way. I found the plot itinerant and banal, the pace was slow and I thought the production lacked focus and energy.

It’s entirely possible that the playwright’s staid sensibility was just too subtle to register with me but I thought the dialogue lacked-depth and found the overall tone of the show dry and humourless.

In addition to the script, the production itself also had flaws. I found the uneven smattering of accents throughout the play very distracting. Why does the Russian stripper speak with an accent while the two cosmonauts speak un-accented English?

In another scene a French scientist is speaking French to a Scottish woman, only he’s not really speaking French, the actor is speaking English, presumably for the sake of the audience. So in effect, the two characters who are supposed to have no understanding of each others’ language are both speaking in English, the whole scene just comes off as unintentionally silly.

The production design is rudimentary despite the fact that it features projections, automation and flying effects. None of these tricks of stagecraft are used particularly effectively. I don’t understand why the production would bother investing in a projection system and then not use it to create any interesting imagery.

The use of a turntable on the stage deck to move scenery about didn’t really add anything to the presentation either. It seemed like a superfluous attempt to inject some dynamic staging into a stagnant story.

In the end, I didn’t find the work particularly layered or thought-provoking and I just couldn’t be moved to care about any of the characters in Cosmonaut or buy-in to their stories. Like the forgotten cosmonauts in the play, I guess I was just waiting for a payoff that never came.

Details:

 

The cosmonaut’s last message to the woman he once loved in the former Soviet Union

• A Canadian Stage production at the Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front St. E), April 16 to May 14, 2011

• Written by: David Greig

• Directed by: Jennifer Tarver

• Starring Tom Barnett, Raoul Bhaneja, Fiona Byrne, David Jansen, Tony Nappo, Sarah Wilson

• Tickets from $22 to $99 are available in person, by phone 416.368.3110, or online at canadianstage.com

Photo credit:

 

– Tony Nappo, Photo by Bruce Zinger

8 thoughts on “Review: The cosmonaut’s last message to the woman he once loved in the former Soviet Union (Canadian Stage)”

  1. Your photo caption is wrong. That’s Tom Barnett, not Tony Nappo. You can double-check this with the playbill you got at the theatre.

  2. Thanks for letting us know.

    We get our images from the Canadian Stage media site’s image gallery and the photo credits are copied verbatim. If there’s a mistake it’s with the source.

  3. “Why does the Russian stripper speak with an accent while the two cosmonauts speak un-accented English?”

    I believe the convention the production is using is this: If a character is speaking English, it is heard with the actual accent the character would use. If the character is speaking a different language, however, it is heard in Canadian English.

    So the Russian stripper’s dialogue is spoken in English with a Russian accent, because she is speaking English with a Russian accent in her scenes. The cosmonauts speak in un-accented ie Canadian English, because they are speaking to each other in Russian.

  4. I figured that was the convention they were trying to establish with the accents but I still found it distracting, even more so with the French characters.

  5. No. That is me. Tom has the beard. And, yes, we would have been speaking Russian so you hear English. There would be no reason for us to speak english to each other with Russian accents. Sarah’s character is actually speaking English. Hence, her accent. Too bad you didn’t like the play. Just one of those shows you will either like or not- not much middle ground on this one.

  6. For those that may read this blog and may be deterred from seeing it, I would just like to say I saw it and found its themes and characters very moving and heartbreaking in a beautiful way. I feel it is being too easily dismissed here. This is not a straight forward narrative driven piece, rather it is more like a piece of poetry. The acting was very strong, especially for such an intimate show produced in such a large theatre. Yes, it is indeed challenging, in the way perhaps appreciating a Rothko or Jackson Pollock painting might be, but isn’t that what art is supposed to do? Challenge our hearts and minds? I don’t go to the theatre to be spoon fed simple slices of life. I hope for something that is poetic and bold. And this play if anything is that. Maybe I connect personally to its themes, so it just registers. Maybe it will for you, as well. Also, there are some actually beautiful visual metaphors created by the set that should be given some appreciation. In particular, Act 2 with characters rotating through space on a moving stage, in a sort of earthly cosmos. Everyone seems emotionally and physically lost, drifting through each others lives, through the unknown. Tony may be right, it may be that people will love it or hate it, but so many genius artists were not appreciated in their time. People hated Van Gogh, but now we find it impossible to understand why. I hope someone produces this play a hundred years from now.

  7. I agree with the review, the play was extremely badly done, and if this play is any representation of today’s theater, than I am very worried for the overall state of the theater today, and especially the state of the theater in Canada. Production was bad, language was poor, dialogue lacked depth, stage non existent, emotions not present, everything about this play was bad bad bad!!!

    Let’s face it, Canada Stage has lost the artistic merits and has become and entertaining company, and fundamental changes are needed to reverse the bad course it has embarked upon…

    Cheers…

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