A Drama in Mid-Air

DESCRIPTION: Hijacked in mid-air, an 19th-century balloon pilot struggles with his assailant over failure, motivation, and survival – the nature of exploration. Inspired by the works of Jules Verne and NASA astronauts.

Man, *everything* about that description disposes me to like this show. Hell, this is worthy of being indulged further. Here’s a note by the playwright/director in the “Background + more” section of the site:

“I’m shocked and frustrated about the ending of the Space Shuttle Program. America’s last, manned flight into space was a little over a year ago – Space Shuttle Atlantis made it’s final landing on July 21, 2011. NASA’s shuttles had been flying for 30 years, put hundreds of astronauts into space, launched (and fixed) the Hubble telescope, helped to assemble two space stations (Mir and the International Space Station)…and that’s just off the top of my head. True, NASA is still working on getting (unmanned) missions to Mars, and NASA still trains astronauts. But, with the retirement of the Space Shuttle vehicle, America has no way of getting our own astronauts into space. Astronauts now tag-along on Cosmonaut or Taikonaut missions. I find that embarrassing. Not being able to get our own explorers into space seems like a grim omen when it comes to inspiring future generations. Can we call ourselves a visionary nation if our own explorers hitchhike?”

So, I’m guessing that most of my readers either skimmed that wall of text or clicked through to another review. I’m hoping that a small percentage, like me, is a little choked up right now. As far as I’m concerned, that passage alone deserves your ticket price.

So, yeah, this is one that hits a huge number of huge buttons for me – science, exploration, adventure – and it follows a promising structure. It opens with the freaking Challenger disaster, for fuck’s sake. That’s bold. It leaps around in space and time to the perils of early ballooning as well as the space program, and intercuts that with comments by Jules Verne and astronauts. That’s *bolder*.

So why did I find so much of the show a chore to sit through? Ultimately, I’m not sure the production lives up to its text. I wasn’t sure whether it was the dialogue or the performances I found stiff – and, yes, I appreciate that the two primary characters are old-school gentlemen, raised in a society where the measure of a man is his ability to maintain coolness and gentility under pressure – but I missed *passion* from both of them, particularly since they were measuring the worth of their ideas in a life-or-death situation.

Worse, there’s a number of members of the cast who simply don’t know their lines. I don’t mean an occasional stumble – I mean it was a recurring, visible problem throughout the show, and a pretty significant barrier to engaging with what was being said. I don’t know the behind-the-scenes deal on this, but for me as an outside observer, it bore all the marks of a chronically under-rehearsed, under-developed production.

I think the script might be very good. In fact, the more I reflect on it, the greater that suspicion grows. But the missed cues, dropped lines, clumsy transitions, and stiff performances make *reaching* those words a slog. I’d be eager to see this script, and any other work from this playwright, in the future – but both would be better served by a more polished presentation.

Questions? Comments? Enraged invective? Check out my answers to occasionally asked questions in Notes on Notes, or the contact info linked from that page!

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