Chances are that when a play has a fifteen word title, neither the work nor its review will be short. David Greig’s The Cosmonaut’s Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union has been given its first Canadian production by Canadian Stage in Toronto.
As I come to this, my second of three consecutive plays representing my first encounter with that playwright (after Martin Crimp, and before a collaboration between Woody
Harrelson & Frankie Hyman), I am wondering how one writes a spoiler-free review of a work unfamiliar to the reader. Whatever Greig’s other works may be like, I can’t merely speak of the production and Jennifer Tarver’s direction, but need to somehow speak of Cosmonaut without giving it away.
Earlier this week I posted a link about Yuri Gagarin on Facebook… …. in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the first manned flight into space, perhaps mindful that I’d be seeing this play.
There are a number of urban legends associated with the Soviet space program. I remember hearing as a child that there was probably a dead cosmonaut in orbit, that Gagarin was the first one we heard about, after previous failures hushed up by the secretive USSR.
It’s interesting to compare the American & Soviet programs.
- The Soviets started first, both with their sputnik and the first manned launch of Gagarin fifty years ago this past Tuesday
- The Americans did everything in full view of the public, including their failures, while the Soviets were tight-lipped and only reported after-the-fact
- Americans landed at sea, while Soviets landed on the land
- Americans supposedly had better computing & science, while the Soviets had bigger and more powerful rockets.
I believe it’s a mistake to say that Greig’s play is based in reality, given that the plot only bears a passing resemblance to historical facts. And does it matter? I am not interested in assessing whether Tarver’s production for Canadian Stage does or does not properly replicate the conditions in orbit or for that matter on the earth. It’s a work of art, and the cosmonaut characters are walking metaphors, the same as the earthbound personages populating the stage.
We encounter two cosmonauts who are marooned in space and apparently forgotten by their space program more than a decade later. How they subsisted or even managed to breath is not explained, given that provisions or oxygen wouldn’t last; but as I said, let’s not quibble with a work of art. At times we watch a spaceman hanging artificially above our heads, a stage convention that we willingly accept because we want the truth of the situation, and make a willing suspension(excuse the pun) of disbelief. I was reminded at times of another legend that eventually proved true: of the lonely Japanese soldiers hiding in bunkers on various Pacific islands long after the end of the Second World War. Impossible situations sometimes illuminate the human condition.
The Canstage presentation of Greig’s play is divided by an intermission. I found the first half very different from the second. In the first part, we watch a series of encounters that demonstrate the futility of attempting communication.
- Cosmonauts attempt unsuccessfully to contact ground control
- A man and his wife watch a television with bad reception; when the TV signal goes out, opening the possibility for some kind of conversation, they don’t seem able to connect, highlighting the uses of technologies such as the TV for evading human contact
- Two men supposedly in similar types of bureaucracy struggle to converse in a bar; the one thing the absolutely can agree on is that anything secret they shared must be kept secret
- A person with some sort of dementia struggles to grasp reality in the presence of a therapist; this touching little encounter, had it begun the act might have seemed like the logical beginning, yet it comes in the heart of other failed attempts at communication
The audience was often laughing even though the situations were extremely poignant with complex ironies that rarely led the entire audience to laugh at the same time.
In the second portion, we experience some redemptive moments in the quest for meaning, even as things unravel even further:
- A wife struggles to decode the mysterious messages her husband left behind
- A man obsesses about a woman
- Another man obsesses about a recording of a woman
- During these investigations, people draw their own conclusions, even if they don’t really “understand”.
It’s a substantial evening in the theatre, a remarkably theatrical presentation calling for each actor to undertake multiple characters. Tarver’s direction never gets in the way of this complex work, so that the interpretation is transparent without obscuring Greig’s complexities. I was especially impressed by Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design, whereby six actors are given a kind of sensuous life due to the wealth of atmospheric sonic detailing that fills the stage.
This play with the long name, that I’ll simply call The Cosmonaut’s Last Message is currently previewing, opening this week, and running until May 14th at the Bluma Appel Theatre. I would strongly recommend that you see it if you can.