Ilya and Emilia Kabakov's 1985 installation The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment is one of escape. In the manufactured scene, Soviet propaganda and debris dominate a room otherwise centered on a large, crude slingshot. An adult-sized seat in the center of the device is there to launch whomever out of the room into space, having already smashed a user through the ceiling. In a statement on the piece, Ilya describes a lifelong impulse to escape, to run away without ever returning. Cited as an inspiration for the show, this same need for change can be found in Unorthodox Methods of Cosmic Flight.
DIY space travel
Similar to the Kabakovs's statement and concept, Cosmonaut Zero, in a wonderfully neurotic performance by Noah Sturtridge, is hyperfocused on cosmic travel. What can be assumed to be his laboratory (the setting for the whole play) is a chaotic assortment of set pieces, different types of static and movable lighting, and junky technologies. An opening monologue places the audience a year and a half into Zero's obsessive, tireless, nearly complete work. He's fascinated by and searching for Point Ø, the creation point of the universe. Shortly into this tirade, he's interrupted by another space-enthusiastic scientist who claims experiential knowledge of the stars.
The messy DIY feel of Panorama Performance Space and Annemarie Branco's set design for Unorthodox amplify the way Cosmonaut Laika (named in another nod to Soviet space culture, played by Mae River Waldron) tosses about pieces of Zero's work. Their crass handling of objects and dramatic manner of speech complement and work inversely to Zero's anxious statements. The interplay adds to an already nonsensical premise. A folding table of dated electronics is smashed to the floor, ladders are moved, lighting is moved about and altered.
Lighting (by Larry Barnes) is an integral part of the show. Visual impressions constantly change with the performers' whims, shifting conversational and physical tones in banter. The cosmonauts move from an introduction of complete disagreement to playful inquiry. Laika notes Zero's commitment to the "use whatever's available for creation" philosophy regarding the makeshift catapult. Once he realizes he and Laika are the space traveler whose notes he's been studying, Zero's humbled reverence lets the notes instruct him in the ways of space propulsion.
Why so serious?
Unorthodox stresses singularity. Zero's mission emphasizes cosmic travel without assistance. He's antisocial and cast in a lesser-than light, not knowing how to relax as part of the process of creation. He indirectly references the Kabakovs' 40-year-old work as a success of unassisted ascendance. Laika's complaints about the lack of laboratory seating expose a tireless, breakless fashion of work. An already prodded thread of work versus play gets a more direct confrontation.
Late into the play, after the cosmonauts collaboratively assemble the slingshot, the room becomes very dark. Space is described as everything and nothing: nothingness encompassing everything. Conversation takes a philosophical turn, stripped of the pervasive kookiness prior to this moment. I couldn't shake the comedy, and I'm not sure I was supposed to, but it did make this part that seemed deep fall a little short for me. The seriousness dissipated quickly as it came to a dramatic conclusion.
Above all else, Unorthodox Methods of Cosmic Flight is very entertaining. Its pseudoscience functions as a rhetorical base, making viewers question how seriously they do or don't take their own work in life. Branco's interactive set design enhances these questions in real time. I'll be considering how funny my regular job is while I'm working this week.
What, When, Where
Unorthodox Methods of Cosmic Flight. Written and directed by Anastassia Vertjanova. Ran from September 9-13, 2021 at Panorama Performance Space. 5213 Grays Avenue, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com.
Panorama Performance Space is not ADA Accessible. The show required proof of full vaccination and masks for all attendees.