The world premiere of Nancy Keystone’s “Apollo — Part 1: Lebensraum” exposes the work as two plays and not a unified whole. The first part is ebullient, visually oriented and choreographically inventive; the second an overly literal, obvious and old-fashioned anti-Nazi drama that abandons those imaginative qualities. The abrupt change of styles is disconcerting and leaves us with a mingled sense of admiration for Keystone’s daring, and frustration that she doesn’t make the most of promising material.
One hard-hitting speech has the ring of a ’60s folk song and shows how proficient a playwright Keystone can be: “If you have a taste for collective massacre, but your own skin is precious to you, become a scientist, my son.” This sums up the premise about German scientists, many with Nazi backgrounds, who are welcomed as valuable contributors to the U.S. space program because they can compete against communist Russia. This need becomes frighteningly acute when the Soviet Unionlaunches Sputnik on Oct. 4, 1957, and it proves “a devastating blow to the prestige of the United States.”
The German scientists are developed against visuals seen in Austin Switser’s excellent video footage, which includes shots of space, crucial newspaper headlines and pictures of Hitler in a car moving through throngs of people. Randy Tico’s sound also sets the mood with a roar of an explosively authentic lift-off.
Keystone’s use of pantomime, dance, repetitive phrases, Tico’s original music and the insertion of such classics as the Everly Bros.’ “Wake up Little Susie” and Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon” move the story along so eloquently that words are unnecessary.
Some engaging sequences include the sight of scientists flying paper planes to underline their excitement, or leaning back in their chairs, simulating the motions of a liftoff.
Walt Disney (Kelly Boulware) makes an entertaining appearance interviewing German scientist Wernher von Braun (Russell Edge) about appearing on his television series; the former Nazi exclaims enthusiastically, “I always wanted to be on TV.” A Mickey Mouse puppet (humorous vocal by Valerie Spencer) also criticizes Hitler as “that silly old Nazi. … He called me dirty, said I was ‘the most miserable ideal ever revealed.'”
Interspersed with these episodes are hints that war criminals and Nazi atrocities will become an integral element of Keystone’s tapestry. Despite this foreshadowing, the overall tone misleadingly signals an uplifting, comprehensive view of the space story, and the production deflates like a punctured balloon when that mood starkly alters.
As Eli Rosenbaum, who focuses on prosecuting former Nazis he feels should never be exonerated, whether or not they help the U.S., David Heckel is sincere and intense. The target of his investigation is Arthur Rudolph (Christopher Shaw), a particularly brilliant scientist who also worked with von Braun (Boulware in this portion). What Rosenbaum seeks to uncover is the extent of Rudolph’s involvement with Camp Dora, a facility that used people — thousands taken from Buchenwald — to build V-2 rockets. Camp Dora included a forced labor factory called Mittelwerk, an underground area “like a horror movie … the huge work yard swarming with slaves, masses of machines and equipment.”
Although 20,000 people died under Rudolph’s service, he protests, “I have always been pure of heart,” and denies culpability, while details of a crematorium and masses of dead bodies are mentioned to establish his guilt. All this is dramatized with laborious slowness, and since Rudolph is so clearly guilty, the events aren’t revelatory, but instead have a by-the-numbers, telegraphed quality that undercuts their effectiveness.
The outstanding use of video in act one is severely curtailed in the stagey second half after a white background drape is removed and masses of file boxes fill the stage, blurring the clarity of the images.
Use of actors playing multiple roles (Boulware, Edge and Hugo Armstrong all play von Braun at different times) occasionally results in confusion, making character differentiation difficult. Under the circumstances, Boulware, Edge, Hugo Armstrong and Shaw are formidable, forceful presences.
The wisdom of getting into bed with previous adversaries when it’s expedient — as in this case, embracing Germans after Russia replaced Germany as our chief enemy — is a vital, provocative issue. What too often grounds “Apollo” is its divergence from a unique language that approaches events creatively.
Keystone has a gift for tapping into new ways of illuminating events; that ability should be more liberally applied to get “Apollo” fully airborne.