New Mugwumpin Play Leaves Earth Far Behind

by Jean Schiffman

“In Event of Moon Disaster” asks questions about space travel and science in relation to the mystical, magical force of the moon.

Imagine then-president Richard Nixon intoning this eulogy back in 1969:

“Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace
will stay to rest in peace. These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin,
know there is no hope for their recovery . . .” Those words are part of an actual contingency
speech (prepared by Nixon speechwriter William Safire) that was the jumping-off point
for Mugwumpin’s latest devised-theater piece, “In Event of Moon Disaster.”

The speech inspired the 14-year-old troupe to consider space travel and science in relation to the moon and to create a multi-generational piece comprising text-based story, dance, gesture, music, video and song. “Mugwumpin is good at taking a theme and expanding it—but with specificity,” says longtime member and newly appointed artistic director Natalie Greene. The San Francisco company has collaboratively created 15 previous full-length pieces and has toured internationally.

As with all its works, the 10-member troupe agrees on themes (for “Moon Disaster,” that includes the implications of leaving the earth, with all its social issues, far behind, and questions about the role of women in the predominantly masculine field of space exploration), and the director then chooses the cast. Performers bring in personal or imagined stories, ideas and text, which are sifted through, kept or discarded, reshaped into movement, song, design elements, visual metaphors and monologue or scene and ultimately integrated to form a cohesive, meaningful and highly theatrical experience. During the development phase, the company uses acting exercises and sometimes involves workshop audiences in the process.

At a rehearsal, following two years of work on the project, Greene (a dancer/performer who also teaches and directs performance at the University of San Francisco) is rearranging eight or nine chunks of material to achieve maximum clarity. Five of the six performers are present tonight (Isa Musni, a dancer who portrays the moon, is absent; she’ll wear a gigantic, faceless moon bobblehead and is the only cast member to play just one role). The actors are collating newly rewritten pages of script as the stage manager arranges props: two space helmets (tonight, a bicycle helmet fills in for one) for the two astronauts, played by Soren Santos and Stephanie DeMott; a galvanized tin bucket to represent a helmet for actor Don Wood, whose own early memories of the historic moon landing form part of the text along with metaphysical writings by Buckminster Fuller; paper airplanes; dozens of ping pong balls that resemble little moons, which actors pop into their mouths and spit out every time the word moon is mentioned; stools; a ladder. Rehearsal begins with Erin Mei-Ling Stuart playing guitar in a duet with the youngest cast member, teenager Nayeli Rodriguez (who plays eight-year-old Mimi, an aspiring astronaut) in a song Stuart wrote: “She’s tugging out my insides,” they sing, of the moon. “I don’t mind.”

The next day in a phone conversation Green says, “Last night I wanted to learn what new stories are told when sections go in a certain order. I realized I wanted to be clearer about the two astronauts.” Specifically, the astronauts are sending messages to Earth, to be received by the elder (Wood), who represents memory and history; the girl Mimi, who represents future and possibility; and the witch (Stuart), representing, says Greene, “the eternal and mystical.” The play moves nonlinearly in time and memory as the three on Earth try to interpret the other-worldly transmissions.

“A lot of ancient cultures worshipped the moon,” Greene points out. “We’re asking questions about space travel and science in relation to the mystical, magical force of the moon. We hope the additional questions we’re digging into can be threaded back to the ‘Moon Disaster’ speech.” As always, Mugwumpin is more interested in questions than in answers.

One long and funny monologue, delivered by DeMott, is entirely derived from the words “in event of…” attached to a litany of possible disasters—tragic, horrific, embarrassing, unlikely, banal—that could conceivably call for contingency plans, such as, “in event of waking up in a pool of blood.” 

Another thread of the story tells of young Mimi’s “weird dream” under the waxing moon. She imagines various futures for herself: will she leave the Bay Area? Will she work to save the planet? Will she ever go to the moon? Will she become a Mars researcher? Will she be a leading NASA scientist? “The Mimi story grew out of our desire to explore ethical and gender issues when thinking about astronauts,” says Greene. So they invented a young Latina, like Rodriguez, who wants to go to space camp but whose family might not want to encourage her interest in science. 

With seating limited to 35 per show, Mugwumpin aims for an intimate and immersive experience for the audience, suggesting that everyone is in space. Live video feeds and archival footage (by video artists Wolfgang Lancelot Wachalovsky and Darl Andrew Packard), and a score (by Teddy Hulsker) that blends subtle, pre-recorded sound and a live mix and includes special filters and treatment, will enhance the show’s environmental effects. The design look—“jumpsuits, a little campy,” says Greene—is “retro-futuristic.” 

At the end of rehearsal, Greene tells the cast, “Take a moment to sing together.” With Stuart on guitar and Rodriguez on ukulele, they do, amidst the ping pong balls, which have bounced around the floor every which way—randomly, says Greene, just like contingency plans.

Jan. 5 → 28

Z Below

470 Florida St., San Francisco

(415) 626-0453