Spaceship to Venus
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 8, 2010
Spaceship to Venus, a new play by Stephanie Fleurantin, covers a lot of ground in its two-hour running time. One of the relationships it charts is between Jackie, a troubled young woman looking to gain some control over her life, and an unnamed Man who is trying to get over a damaging relationship with his possibly unfaithful ex-wife. Jackie and the Man are helping each other by engaging in impromptu therapy sessions with one another; from what we see of them, they consist of role-playing events from each other's pasts and drawing upon various games and techniques acquired from previous, more formalized therapies that they've undergone. Though Jackie and this Man seem to be opposites—she's trying to make ends meet as a waitress while he's a successful businessman of some kind; she's always a mess, in worn-out clothes with her hair askew, while he's dapper and well-dressed—we sense that they are genuinely good for each other. Fleurantin, here, crafts a relationship to root for, one that can plausibly blossom into something deeper.
The play focuses almost equally, though, on another of Jackie's relationships—this one with her brother, David. He is a recently-returned Iraqi war veteran, and he's having trouble acclimating to civilian life. David may also be struggling with hereditary mental illness. We learn, in her conversations with both the Man and David, that Jackie and David's father suffers from some kind of disorder (perhaps he is bipolar) that can lead to unstable behavior when he's not properly medicated. In fact, their father's illness made Jackie and David's childhood something of a living hell, and eventually destroyed their mother.
David is visited by Tim, a fellow soldier who was killed in battle; at first we think this is a coping mechanism, but we'll discover that Tim is a dangerous hallucination. It seems that David has indeed progressed from PTSD to an illness akin to his father's.
What's most compelling about Spaceship to Venus are the ways that Fleurantin builds these various relationships. The unorthodox therapy sessions with the Man are revealing and encouraging. The slow build-up of David's mental disorder via the scenes with his dead friend Tim is incisive and fascinating. The central metaphor of escape, represented by the play's title, is well drawn throughout the script.
But there's a lack of focus in the play that makes it hard to finally keep up with. While this could just seem like a way to reinforce Jackie's restlessness, it instead makes the piece feel haphazard as it jumps from one central storyline to another. I didn't feel Jackie's journey as keenly as I would have liked to, and I wasn't sure that she had grown in any significant ways from the beginning to the end of the play. Also, a supernatural (apocalyptic?) element is introduced in the very last scene that doesn't seem to be of a piece with the rest of Spaceship to Venus. I think some tightening and editing of this script could be beneficial to it.
Director Damon Krometis has given the play a production that is thoughtful and committed. The pacing is brisk and transitions between scenes are well-managed; the lighting by T. Rick Hayashi is excellent in evoking not just a general environment but telling details within. Chantal Pascente's sound, though, is unspecific and sometimes distracting—I couldn't always tell what it was supposed to depict or whose point of view it represented. Similarly, there's an overall lack of specificity in the show's setting that proved a bit troublesome for me: the program tells us that the play takes place in Philadelphia, but I didn't get a sense of a big city from either the script or the staging. And the fact that much of the play takes place in a completely anonymous room where Jackie and the Man do their therapy is a bit confusing as well: I kept wanting to know where they were meeting and, more important, who was ultimately in control of this presumably common space?
Sofia Beatrice works hard to make Jackie likeable (the playwright admits in the script that the character is likely to come off as "rude and abrasive"); her portrayal feels very much to be from the outside-in, as though Jackie were principally defined by her poor self-image. The four men in the cast do fine work: Ken Glickfeld is very effective in a brief scene as Jackie and David's father; Billy Griffin is invaluable as the illusory ghost of Tim; and Jeff Berg (Man) and Alex Brown (David) are convincing and sympathetic in bringing their complex, difficult characters to life.
Spaceship to Venus, an ambitious undertaking by a young playwright and a young theatre company (Examined Man Theatre), showcases many committed, talented artists, whose growth will be exciting to observe.