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A stage artist of soaring ambition

Nancy Keystone's 'Apollo' is a fantasia on rocket history that veers from Huntsville, Ala., to Nazi Germany.

June 12, 2005|Karen Wada | Special to The Times

Nancy KEYSTONE can take years to finish a play, but it's not because she spends a lot of time sitting around. The L.A. director is in perpetual motion, from the moment a project first glimmers in her mind through a seemingly endless series of research sessions, workshops and "showings" in which audiences are invited to comment on woolly works in progress.

"I keep getting ideas," she says. "So I need to keep testing things to see if something I'm fascinated with makes other people groan."

Although Keystone has staged dozens of regional productions, from Albee to Shakespeare, she is best known for the highly theatrical pieces she creates with Critical Mass Performance Group, the ensemble she founded in 1985. "Our process is a conversation," she says of the give-and-take through which she and her colleagues generate "collages" of text, imagery and movement. They have reconceived the tragedy of Antigone and reexamined the life of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. Now they are taking on a subject big enough to satisfy even their leader's restless imagination: space.

Critical Mass has spent nearly five years developing "Apollo," what Keystone calls a "three-dimensional tone poem" inspired by the relationship between German scientists and the U.S. space program. This month, the Kirk Douglas Theatre will present the world premiere -- well, the first half, at least.

Keystone had planned a two-act play: a fantasia about rocket history that bounces from Jules Verne to the RAND Corp. to Mickey Mouse, followed by a dissection of the moral costs behind that history, specifically the willingness of U.S. officials to ignore potential Nazi war crimes to secure the potential criminals' expertise. In the midst of her research, however, she noted that the 1960s South was home to both the transplanted Germans and the American Civil Rights movement. "One group was trying to break the bond of gravity, and another was trying to break bonds of slavery and oppression," she says. "That's when I realized I had more story to tell." "Apollo: Part II" is being developed at Portland Center Stage in Oregon.

Such free-flowing visions, onstage and off, might scare many producers. Not Center Theatre Group's associate producer for new play development. Anthony Byrnes. Thrilled by an early workshop version, he brought "Apollo" to the Douglas. "Nancy always bites off a lot," Byrnes says. "She embraces as much material as she can, then she builds it bigger with her ensemble. She aggressively engages all the things the theater can do."

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Ideas in the incubator

Keystone started thinking about space 15 years ago when she read an article about Arthur Rudolph, who helped build the Nazis' V2 rocket and later the Saturn 5 that carried the Apollo mission to the moon. Rudolph and others, including Wernher von Braun, were brought to America through a U.S. military intelligence operation. In the 1980s, Rudolph was investigated by the Justice Department amid claims that thousands of prisoners had died while working on German rockets. He returned to his homeland and died in 1996 after vainly fighting to clear his name.

The clipping sat in Keystone's files for a decade. "I thought this was a big story," she says. "A story of the century and our lust for technology and power. I also was intrigued by this man's journey from Nazi Germany to the United States, and then he was taken down at the end of his life. I felt he was made a scapegoat. I also felt he probably was a war criminal."

She began to assemble a cast and production team, drawing on relationships that date as far back as her student days at UCLA, where she had founded Critical Mass (then Firebrand Theatre Company). Keystone recruited performers she had met through her past shows, including the acclaimed 2000 premiere of "The Akhmatova Project" at the Actors' Gang Theatre.

The "Apollo" group studied news accounts, academic reports and period music. Keystone traveled to Huntsville, Ala., where Rudolph had worked. She led exercises designed, she says, "to activate the muscles and the nerves. We tried to tap into certain core states, for instance yearning for something impossible, as in 'How does a scientist deal with his obsession with solving an unsolvable problem?' We'd have people sit and try to embody their feelings with their hands or by using a pencil and paper."

Characters and scenes were formed and re-formed. "Nancy's role is to allow us all to create," says Richard Anthony Gallegos, an actor in "Apollo." "Then she finesses what we do, and we make it even better."

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