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.
• 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
– Tony Nappo, Photo by Bruce Zinger