It’s a testament to the feats achieved by NASA in the past few years that parts of Stuart Wilson’s one-man show It’s a Spaceship Now, premiered in 2013, already feel dated. The Mars rover? Old news – we have color photos of Pluto now!
On the other hand, it doesn’t hurt that our sense of wonder at what humanity can accomplish in space is continually being refreshed, and that, after all, is what drives the plot of Spaceship. It’s a story about amazing things framed in everyday actions and language: a kid grows up on “Star Trek” and the idea of boldly going…, dreams of traveling into space, and a few decades later, watches news reports of the Mars rover landing and feels that dream flare up again. So he converts an old Soviet ICBM to a spaceship, reasoning, “I got a missile and not a lot to do,” borrowing his engineer dad’s plasma cutter because it’s one of those things, when you have it, you use it for everything.
The show begins with Stu – the actor, character, eventual namesake of the titular spaceship – making coffee for the audience while chatting. (Iced coffee is available in this iteration of the show.) It never feels gimmicky, and before the audience knows it, we’ve been brought in to Stu’s story. The family drama of that story is largely downplayed in favor of the spaceship process (“the first spaceflight for artistic purposes”), but the few moments about Stu and his father possibly land better for it. Another strong section of the show is the Q&A, where Stu, in a white lab coat, answers audience questions about his planned spaceflight. Wilson, an experienced improv actor, says that he’s rarely fazed by the questions; it’s the occasional space-obsessed kid that runs the risk of stumping him.
The low-budget, somewhat cheesy aesthetic isn’t inappropriate for a play about building a spaceship from stuff you found dumpster diving. A plastic Easter egg and clingfilm represent the missile shell and the Plexiglas windows when Stu needs to demonstrate what he did to make the spaceship, but the Tyvek spacesuit isn’t the production budget at work – it’s Stu’s actual spacesuit in the story. A few scenes involve prerecorded video of Wilson or other projected media, but the spaceflight itself is gloriously live.
Spaceship has been trimmed to about 45 minutes from previous longer runs, mostly, Wilson says, by cutting down on overexplaining. Five to 10 minutes of explanation of where he obtained the ICBM that becomes his spaceship are gone, since the logic of it isn’t the important part. The streamlining is also aimed at making it a show that’s not just for people who know him or his work around town – there are still enough real details dropped in to amuse those people (remember when he learned to wrestle for a Wilbury Group show?) but the slideshow of baby pictures is gone. The loss of a few of the song-and-dance numbers leaves some of the ones left over feeling a little tangential to the story, but one mid-show singalong number nonetheless pays off by loosening up the audience enough to count down to liftoff and to sing “Electric STU!” over the lyrics of Icehouse’s “Electric Blue” at the end.
It’s a Spaceship Now, Wilbury Theatre, 7/24 at 8pm as part of FringePVD.