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NSRC 2020

 
Poster for 'When Tang Met Laika'

Review: When Tang Met Laika


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When Tang Met Laika
At the Denver Center for the Performing Arts
Through February 27

Countless plays have been written throughout history about such central human concepts as love, friendship, and conflict. Far fewer have attempted to deal with spaceflight. And, most likely, none had attempted to tackle love, friendship, conflict, and space, not to mention the collapse of the Soviet Union and, for good measure, the “Miracle on Ice” at the Winter Olympics at Lake Placid 30 years ago. Until now.

When Tang Met Laika, which had its world premiere at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts last month and is wrapping up its run there this week, takes on all of those issues and more in a bid to try and explain—or at least describe—the profound effects spaceflight has on people during and after their missions in space. At the play’s heart are an American astronaut, Patrick, and a Russian cosmonaut, Elena, who meet when Patrick goes to the Mir on a Shuttle-Mir mission in the 1990s. Their on-and-off relationship continues after the mission, as Patrick in particular struggles to readjust to life at home with his wife and children. Both separately go to the International Space Station on later missions, with Patrick on the station when the shuttle Columbia is lost in 2003.

“What kind of emotional toll does space exploration take on someone who has decided to devote his or her life to it?” the play’s author asks. “How does one return to ‘ordinary’ life after experiencing extraordinary things?”

These events all take place on a backdrop of the changing geopolitical environment of the post-Cold War era as the two countries draw closer, but also see relations cool. The play attempts to illustrate these changes in part through a series of vignettes by two characters identified in the cast as “Young Communist (Retired)” and “Young Capitalist (Retired)”, who mourn the loss of the conflict between them that had defined their lives, then conspire to recreate that conflict. These characters may have confused people more than enlightened them, though, based on some of the audience comments after the performance I attended last week: they couldn’t understand who they were supposed to be or represent.

When Tang Met Laika is performed in theater-in-the-round (appropriately, if coincidentally, in the Space Theatre at the Denver Center) with relatively simple sets and props. There’s good attention to detail in the play: while the events may be fictional there’s a largely successful attempt to get the underlying facts correct (former astronaut Bruce McCandless served as a technical advisor.) However, the focus of the play is on the characters and their interactions—as they should be.

In an article in the program for the play, its author, Rogelio Martinez, describes what he believes is at its core. “What kind of emotional toll does space exploration take on someone who has decided to devote his or her life to it?” he asks. “How does one return to ‘ordinary’ life after experiencing extraordinary things?” When Tang Met Laika, he admits, does not answer those questions, but instead illustrates them in an innovative fashion. It’s a play that hopefully will get a chance to fly again after its current mission in Denver ends.


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