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THEATER REVIEW

Dreams of spaceflight soar in 'Apollo'

June 14, 2005|Steven Oxman | Special to The Times

Rocket scientists dance. Prosecutors just talk.

That's one lesson learned, albeit an unintentional one, from Nancy Keystone's "Apollo -- Part I: Lebensraum," a work that soars thrillingly high -- those dancing scientists! -- when focused on dreams of reaching outer space, and then sinks a bit too far down to earth -- that garrulous attorney! -- as it ponders moral and legal compromises made en route to the moon.

This is a piece that's most moving when the actors move, and there's a lot more movement in Act I as Keystone traces the roots of spaceflight, in Germany before and during World War II. She tells a sweeping narrative in broad strokes.

Actually, she doesn't tell the story so much as she and her talented ensemble express it through theatrical means. The initial design of the V-2 rocket in Germany during WWII becomes a miniature dance, repetitive gestures and phrases summarizing the challenge: "thrust," "velocity," "guidance and control."

The war ends, the courtship between the U.S. military and the former Nazi scientists is captured with more repetitive phrases, so tempting to the military ear ("Liquid fuel," "pyramid of fire"), and a physically eloquent use of pencils.

With exquisite design touches, we're taken to sunny Los Angeles, see the launch of Sputnik, meet Walt Disney and (memorably) Mickey Mouse, and, eventually, with the essential assistance of German expatriates Wernher von Braun and Arthur Rudolph, celebrate America's landing a man on the moon.

The first act flies by (pardon the pun), sharing the pleasant feeling of weightlessness a group of young, fresh-faced scientists imagine early on.

Then comes Act II.

After coming to America, Von Braun and Rudolph enjoyed storied careers: Von Braun appears on TV, and Rudolph works in Huntsville, Ala., helping make spaceflight, and U.S. technical superiority, a reality. ("Apollo -- Part II," still in development, involves the conflation of the work in Huntsville with the simultaneous Civil Rights struggle.)

In the '80s, Rudolph's collaboration -- indeed, his potential leadership -- in war crimes is uncovered and investigated by the Justice Department, led by prosecutor Eli Rosenbaum (David Heckel). The illegalities of Operation Paperclip, wherein Nazi scientists were pursued for knowledge rather than brought to justice, comes to light. The Nazis, Keystone implies with her title, weren't the only ones who wanted "lebensraum," which means "living space" but is associated with what a nation needs and takes for its aspirations. Our triumph had a dark side.

One can't expect the exploration of murky morality to be as happily entertaining as the race to space. But there's an artistic disconnection that occurs during intermission of "Apollo." Theatrical imagination moves too far to the periphery.

The interrogation scenes with Rosenbaum and Rudolph are, well, interrogation scenes. When Rosenbaum confronts Rudolph with the facts about his own past -- that he requested more forced laborers to pursue his rocketry work -- and Rudolph manages to continue in blatant denial, it's well-played, realistic, believable.

But isn't this situation -- a lawyer pursuing his prey, a man faced with something too distasteful to admit -- worthy of expressive gestures too?

If rocket science can dance, why can't the pursuit of justice?

*

`Apollo - Part I: Lebensraum'

Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m., Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m., Sundays; call for added Wednesday matinees

Ends: July 3

Price: $19-$40

Contact: (213) 628-2772; www.KirkDouglasTheatre.org

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

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