The actor Danny Scheie led the audience around the auditorium like a drill sergeant in Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s A House Tour (2016). He was directed to organize the troops with such clarity and purpose that we always knew what direction to move and where to place our attention. The exact opposite can be said for the return of immersive theater to Z Space with In Event of Moon Disaster. After director Natalie Greene delivered her thanks at the end of the performance, she went on to add a surprising fact — this opening night Disaster had been in the works for two years. Surprising because the actors’ performances felt not only under-rehearsed, but the script they were reciting from — if the lines weren’t entirely improvised — resisted coherence from the minute you entered the lobby.
After collecting your tickets at will-call, you’re given a ping-pong ball and told to throw it when you hear a certain word spoken aloud. This is the first regretful step down a path of silliness that the production could have avoided, especially as it also attempted to grasp humankind’s profound, romantic obsession with the moon. Next, we were pressed into a standing room only foyer. You couldn’t take a seat because the theater doors remained willfully closed until the start of the show. And it began fitfully, with pre-recorded video transmissions on TV monitors. We gather that a man and a woman, astronauts, and co-pilots, are stranded on the far side of the moon. Their communiqué gets cut off, interrupted by an anomaly, gone fuzzy and gray.
Don Wood, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, and Nayeli Rodriguez then entered the lobby in silver lamé and white space costumes (their shiny, silver boots were enviable). The three actors either weren’t in character yet or couldn’t exude enough chutzpah to put the fourth wall in place But, and perhaps this is a key to some of the many problems at hand, they weren’t actually given characters to inhabit (names yes, but not characters) — just words, songs, or movements to indicate lunar and cosmic subject matter in the broadest, often vaguest, sense. Suddenly, Mei-Ling Stuart stood at the top of the stairs with a guitar about to break into song while trying to catch Wood’s attention as he mingled with us. And the space transmissions kept breaking into whatever the live bodies were trying to accomplish. It was a confused beginning that led to a chaotic middle and a bewildering end.
After waiting for a signal to give us direction, we were led along a raised platform built against three quarters of the square, overheated room. There were no chairs inside. From this point forward, incomprehensibility prevailed. The pilots lost on the moon — Stephanie DeMott and Soren Santos, also dressed in space costumes — emerged from a darkened corner. Throughout the evening, they would either perform robotic dance movements or converse with each other about their dilemma, distracting each other with anecdotes from their terrestrial past. The production provided them with video cameras and projections, lighted helmets and lighted night skies, but was averse to giving the audience any context to ground their story in some relatable place.
Intermittently, Wood (who didn’t appear to take his part seriously, often smiling as if about to tell a joke) recounted stories relating to his character’s service in the Vietnam War. Mei-Ling Stuart discussed, with no one in particular, the lack of gender parity in space programs. And Rodriguez, more for her benefit than the audience’s, rattled off technical and scientific terminology. This trio is meant to be in search of the missing astronauts but the language they’ve been given divides them. They get lost, deeper and deeper into black holes of empty, esoteric rhetoric. Nothing they do or say made any sense as it related to reuniting them with DeMott and Santos.
Only when Isa Musni appears with a moon-shaped globe on her head did the right note of planetary estrangement fill the room. She begins a dance with her face hidden inside a papier-mâché mask. This hybrid creature is something wholly new. A pagan moon goddess, made of rock and flesh, who should have been at the center of our attention, an embodiment of our earthly fascination with all things lunar. Instead, we moved our bodies to small, uncomfortable stools, turning left then right then back and around again in an attempt to find someone or something to focus on in this disjointed narrative.
In Event of Moon Disaster, through Jan. 28, at Z Space, 450 Florida St. $25; 415-626-0453 or zspace.org/moondisaster