Blast! Off.

Prolix! Prolix! Nothing a pair of scissors can't fix.

Leaving the Gerding Theatre after the opening night performance of Apollo, I was thinking of those lines from a song by Nick Cave (We Call Upon the Author). To save you from scampering for a dictionary, “prolix” is an adjective describing something that is tediously prolonged or wordy. It is an apt term for Apollo – a three act play packed with intriguing ideas and striking images, sounds and movement--all overshadowed by a sense of self-indulgence and excess. Sorry, that’s how I saw it.

I thought a lot more about Apollo on Saturday, creating this 60 second video to convey my thoughts:



In short: Like these rockets, Apollo is full of grand ambition and moments of spectacular imagery, but requires further development to work out the bugs.

On Sunday, I realized that wasn't being informative, constructive or kind. So let's go back to the beginning.

Friday evening began with a delightful dinner at Fifty Plates in the company of Culture Jock and our respective partners. We dawdled over coffee, stoking caffeine to offset the depressant effects of martinis and a bottle of Pinot Noir, girding ourselves for the three acts of Apollo. A balky credit card reader threw our timing off, forcing us to rush to our seats just as the doors were closing. Artistic Director Chris Coleman was wrapping up his curtain speech and I caught the faint scent of preemptive apology. To paraphrase (very loosely, because I was out of breath and turning my cell phone off), “I know some of you aren’t going to like this, but that’s the nature of new play development. Have a good time.” Uh oh.

Rather than write my own synopsis of the play, I’m just going to borrow this nice description from Portland Center Stage's website:

Apollo is an epic, multimedia examination of post WWII America which explores the birth of the U.S. space program, its employment of former-Nazi rocket scientists, and their surprising intersection with the Civil Rights Movement. Using the U.S. mission to the moon as a symbol of our country’s greatness, Apollo probes deep into the question: what did we sacrifice to become the America we are today? And was it worth it? Through a kaleidoscopic array of theatrical methods (movement, text, video projection, music), [Nancy] Keystone reveals the costs and ambiguities of human aspiration and progress.”

Keystone wrote and directed Apollo in collaboration with the Los Angeles-based theater ensemble, Critical Mass Performance Group, where she is Artistic Director. Her artistic ties to Portland Center Stage under Coleman’s artistic reign go back many years, including a stint as artist-in-residence. (I liked her direction of Antigone, and thought Under the Lintel was a fascinating production). If you’re familiar with the work of Sojourn Theatre, you’ll spot similarities, both in the approach they take in creating work and in the performance elements they employ: stylized/ritualized movement, nonlinear narratives, multimedia sound and images, etc.

If the goal of a work of theater or performance art is to provoke contemplation and conversation after the curtain has gone down, then Apollo is a success. Since I left the Gerding 48 hours ago, I’ve devoted way too much mental bandwidth to Keystone’s epic opus. I've scrolled through Wikipedia entries on Wernher Von Braun, Arthur Rudolph, Walt Disney, Jules Verne, V-2 rockets, “Frau im Mond,” Operation Paperclip, etc. I even watched YouTube clips of von Braun’s collaboration with Walt Disney to sell the vision of space exploration to the American public.

I learned about things I didn’t know before, was reminded of more that I had forgotten, and found fresh ideas to contemplate. I understand why Keystone’s imagination was ignited by the intersecting stories and resonant themes she uncovered in her research. With a web woven between rocket scientists in Nazi Germany and the struggle for civil rights in Alabama, Keystone has concocted a framework through which she examines a slice of American history.

Apollo poses profound and timeless human questions, covering a lot of ground for a single play. Maybe too much. It seems to strive to reach epic proportions--trying to do with the space race and civil rights what Angels in America did with the AIDS epidemic. While all three acts of Apollo are of a piece, each could have been developed as a complete play by itself (albeit at the price of diminishing its grandeur).

But the fundamental problem is not that Apollo is too ambitious in its scope. That wouldn't explain why I started getting impatient in the first act. The bigger problem is that Apollo could have achieved its storytelling ambitions without becoming a bloated three-and-three-quarters hour-long endurance test. Some sensible editing and tightening are badly needed.

My sense is that Keystone was so enraptured by all of the elements created over Apollo's long gestation that she was unable or unwilling to let any of them go. The toughest task for a writer is to excise text you've grown to love. It’s hard to say, “Even though I adore this scene, it’s not serving a necessary purpose.”

I’m going to presume that Keystone heard this suggestion from colleagues as the play took shape (I hope she did), but decided that the work’s artistic integrity would be compromised by cutting. Okay, that’s the artist’s prerogative. And bravo to Portland Center Stage--I guess--for respecting the artist and giving Keystone the freedom and resources (!) to carry out her vision. Of course, that means accepting the blowback from audience members, like me, who won't connect with this play because they are annoyed at the extravagance of spending nearly four hours to get two to three hours of content.

Some audience members will be put off by Apollo because they are unaccustomed to nontraditional approaches to theater, or are simply obtuse. It's not a challenging play in the sense of being intellectually dense, suffused with tricky language or built on obscure references. While a few segments are abstract or confusing, much of the play suffers from being too obvious and heavy-handed: Lincoln balancing on a tight rope? I get it. A belle in a hoop skirt warning of threats to Southern womanhood? I get it. Simplistic caricatures abound–not just Mickey Mouse himself, but a cartoon George Wallace, a buffoonish Hitler and a fleeting visit from a Klansman. Visual and verbal metaphors rain down incessantly and without nuance. The laughs are often cheaply purchased. The acting ensemble is talented, but the stylized approach Apollo adopts strips almost all of the characters of any real human dimensions. (The exception is during the Arthur Rudolph story in the second act--that alone should be developed into a play).

Apollo does have some outstanding moments and strengths that show Keystone's artistry. Isolated bits of movement are compelling: The actors mimicking weightlessness; the row of ensemble members shadow punching and stepping forward with swift jabs while reciting in unison, “We the peoplepow... of the United States...pow pow pow...; the rope tricks turning into nooses and binding the players.

The set design (also by Nancy Keystone) is spectacular--particularly in the second act--and the light and sound design are exceptionally good. Unfortunately, this only adds to the sense of extravagance and self-indulgence. How much did this puppy cost?

The final act of Apollo includes a scene in which civil rights leader Dr. Ralph Abernathy leads a march on the eve of the launch of Apollo 11. He challenges the amount of spending on NASA and space exploration while so many Americans remained impoverished. I'm sorry, but I can't help but feel that the same question is relevant to this Apollo project.

Now, if you disagree with my assessment, or are disappointed that I'm disappointed, let's talk. Give me some comments. Tell me I'm full of it. Reminder: Though I blog under the moniker Mighty Toy Cannon, I'm not hiding behind anonymity.

1 comment:

Cindy in Pdx said...

I couldn't agree more. The 'message' and story were so bogged down with stereotypes and didactic moralization that I literally felt embarrassed for PCS. The dialogue came across as excruciatingly stilted and cliche-ridden to the point that the audience was, at times, audibly sighing. Four hours? I fled after the first act..