Actors who’ve tasted the more soulless aspects of Hollywood success often swing back toward the most process-oriented aspects of their own theatrical training. But what re-invigorates them isn’t always so exciting for the audience. Bill Pullman’s admirably diverse career on screen and stage provides no particular preparation for “Expedition 6,” a world premiere theater event relating the story of the International Space Station crisis in cobbled-together real-life texts, choreographed movement, elaborate soundscapes, trapeze acrobatics and a multicast ensemble.
These two hours are always interesting, if only because the presentation constantly calls attention to itself. Yet the self-consciousness with which docu-drama content and contrived ingenuity are thrust together never feels organic, moving, or necessary.
Despite ample effort and novelty, “6” ultimately seems a simple case of form/content mismatch. With the documentary “In the Shadow of the Moon” currently telling a very similar story in enthralling terms via straight-up talking heads and archival footage, the hoops Pullman and company jump through via the magic of pantomime end up seeming a tad fish-with-bicycle.
Speaking words exclusively drawn from pre-existing documents, interviews and news reports, the barefoot cast of eight clad in casual street clothes portrays astronauts, wives, NASA spokespersons, media commentators (in typical “Troy McClure” mode) and miscellaneous others.
Initially they do a lot of that robotic walking-back-and-forth signaling large-scale activity that never worked for anyone but Robert Wilson.
Eventually we’re introduced to the three men who wound up crew on the unprecedented multinational ISS project: Yanks Donald Pettit (Robert Karma Robinson) and Ken Bowersox (Brent Rose), and Russian Nikolai Budarin (Justin Walvoord). Their comments are militarily matter-of-fact rather than emotionally expressive — as one might expect of individuals trained to be cool as cucumbers under any circumstances.
Act One ends with the seven crewmembers of Shuttle Colombia lost in a catastrophic re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere — one dramatized far too obtusely here.
Act Two centers on the Expedition 6 trio’s fate. There was apparently no Plan B in place should the Colombia become unavailable, and international relations grew uneasy as the U.S. invaded Iraq — wresting not just attention but global sympathy from the stranded astronauts.
This is an exciting story, but the distancing provided by abstract-minimalist staging only dissipates impact — lovely approximations of weightlessness orchestrated by trapeze choreographer Robert Davidson aside.
Worse, Pullman fumbles the play’s attempt to wed Expedition drama with criticism of the War in Iraq. A powerful thematic link might well be made, but in sticking strictly to found texts, he denies himself the opportunity for powerful imaginative and symbolic connections. “Expedition 6” winds up impressively effortful yet heavy-handed, underwhelming and unconvincing.