The Cosmonaut’s Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union
at the Chopin Theatre
Everybody knows that the stars we see aren’t the stars that are. It’s one of the great cliches of modern physics that starlight may take years to reach our eyes. And so what we see in the night sky at any given moment isn’t what’s actually present at that moment but a hodgepodge of extinct images, alive only to the one receiving them. To whoever happens to be looking up just there and then. A cosmic cognitive dissonance.
In his odd, powerful The Cosmonaut’s Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union, Scottish playwright David Greig posits a similar dissonance in the human heart and mind. His primary example is a pair of Soviet cosmonauts who have been orbiting the earth for 12 years. Long since out of communication with the ground, Oleg and Casimir don’t know that the USSR has been dissolved, much less what’s become of anybody they loved there. All they have is their extinct images. At one point Oleg comforts Casimir by summoning a vision of Casimir’s daughter swimming in the cool waters of Lake Baikal and looking up at him as his capsule passes overhead each day–never mind that in fact Baikal is now a toxic puddle and the daughter, Nastasja, is working as an exotic dancer in London.
Still, Oleg’s fantasy isn’t completely absurd. Nastasja actually does look up, though what she sees isn’t the hairy madman Casimir’s become but something like her own personal heavenly father: the last bit of his long-ago light reaching her eyes.
And so it goes. Nastasja entertains a Scottish civil servant named Keith who tape-records her breathing as she sleeps; when Eric, a Norwegian negotiator for the World Bank, hears the tape he’s transformed. A little later, when Keith disappears, his wife Vivienne doesn’t go searching for him but for a French mountain depicted on the necktie he left behind. In France she meets a ufologist, Bernard, who monitors the cosmonauts but mistakes them for extraterrestrials. Meanwhile an old man with aphasia wanders through the play trying to find words for “that fucking lovely stuff” in his mind’s eye.
Intentionally or otherwise, everyone here is sending and receiving messages. Who knows when, where, whether, or how those messages might arrive? Or who if anyone will be there to pick them up? Or what if anything they may turn out to be saying? There’s a sort of cunning inadvertence to Greig’s emotional universe, a designed recklessness. God playing dice with nouns and verbs, symbols and signifiers. And yet certain messages come through clearly, simply, sweetly enough, as when Bernard finds the means to reassure Vivienne even though he speaks no English and she no French.
Greig’s universe may be bizarre, but he offers it to us with utmost seriousness. Even the cosmonauts are no more ridiculous than you might expect them to be, given their impossible circumstances. Director Anthony Moseley respects this sense of–well, gravity in the face of cosmic absurdity, and that makes all the difference. This Collaboraction production is at once funny, painful, and smart, showing a zest for paradox embodied visually in the juxtaposition of set designer Nic Dimond’s rat’s nest of a space capsule with projection designer Sean Maloney’s transcendent images of earth from space.
Dev Kennedy’s Keith is another marvelous paradox: a banal, fatuous, cowardly man who can be awfully bad but also compellingly lost. Kennedy’s Bernard not only looks a lot like Chuck Close but carries himself with an inquisitive, compassionate dignity consistent with what I’ve read about that great artist. Sandra Delgado is an unexpectedly charming combination of vulgarity and hunger as Nastasja, especially when she makes an effort to convince herself that Eric is the Hollywood mogul who’s finally come to take her away from all this. Rita Simon moves nicely from mousy, hankering Vivienne to someone much harder and denser, a stripper named Sylvia. And Scott Kennedy’s whacked-out Casimir and Jamie Vann’s stolid, lethal Oleg are hilarious as they wait for Godot in outer space.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Saverio Truglia.