Monday, October 29, 2018

Douglas Messerli | "A World of Endless Picnics" (on Maureen Huskey's The Woman Who Went to Space as a Man)

by Douglas Messerli

Maureen Huskey (writer and director) The Woman Who Went to Space as a Man, music by Yuval Ron / Los Angeles, Son of Semele Theater / the production I saw was on Sunday, October 28, 2018

You might describe the Son of Semele Ensemble’s small, hole-in-the-wall theater—which I attended for the first time yesterday afternoon—as being a haven for believers in drama the way many religious believers perceive their store-front churches. For this small company preaches “bold and imaginative theater” (what they describe as risk-taking work) that “embraces the friction between emotion and intellect.” In Greek myth Semele’s son, fathered by Zeus, was Dionysius.
      Clearly, they have found just such a playful and risk-taking work in Maureen Huskey’s science-fiction musical, The Woman Who Went to Space as a Man.

The play, however, is not quite as inexplicable as its title, for this work recounts the strange story of real-life science fiction author James Tiptree, winner of several Hugo Awards (given annually to the best science fiction or fantasy writing), who was beloved by fellow writers Ursula LeGuin, Joanna Russ, Philip K. Dick, and numerous others, and who had a large group of admirers with whom the author corresponded for decades. Tiptree was known for a masculinity of tone, much as was Hemingway; but the plots of these works did not always favor the male heroes, who were often destroyed, killed the entire population of earth, or themselves were destroyed—as we observe in the opening tableau—by the author’s female characters, as in “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” when, after being saved by a crew of female astronauts, the males cannot resist their tendencies to rape and abuse. Seemingly inexplicably, in this first theatrical image, while the women crewmembers inject vials of poison into the males on the rampage, a woman (Betsy Moore), who appears to be the pilot of ship, sits, stage center, with a gun held to her head—obviously contemplating suicide.
     For those of us who have never heard of Tiptree, let alone read his works, the stage actions seem almost like some bad science-fiction film that makes little sense. Yet soon after, another of Tiptree’s female characters, Mira (Megann Rippey) appears in full extraterrestrial garb (beautifully realized by costume designer Lena Sands) to guide the suicidal Alice back through the history of her life, which unravels and helps to explain what we have just witnessed.
     One might have feared such an obvious structural device of unspooling the central character’s past could lead to a rather predictable series of interactions that psychologize and simplify what has just begun as a fantastical mystery. Yet Huskey’s play, fortunately, retains its playful confusion, in part by introducing sung music by composer Yuval Ron, that functions a bit like such whacky musical interludes in the plays of Mac Wellman, charming us at the very moment that, in their unexpected appearance in what might have been a simple genre play, deeply enrich the work.
     Even if we are taken back down the yellow-brick-road from the Emerald City to the land of the Munchkins, we are never quite certain where we are. We begin, in this instance, in Alice Bradley’s (later Alice Sheldon’s) childhood (with the lovely Isabella Ramacciotti playing the 12-year-old little Alice) as she appears on what she later describes as one of her “endless picnics,” this with her mother, Mary (Anneliese Euler) in the wilds of Africa where, it appears, the imperious woman has just shot her first elephant, apparently an absolutely normal activity for her and her husband of the elite class (reminding one a bit of the Trump children). Surely, the wealthy socialite Mary seems to presume that the entire world belongs to her, including her own daughter’s childhood writings, which the mother quickly incorporates into her own published travelogues, which celebrate the fact that she has undertaken such a dangerous journey with a young child. The newspapers later shouted the fact that in their travels it was the first time the pygmies had even seen a young white girl.
     They hardly have time to return home before Alice, now 16 (played by Paula Rebelo) is told that it is time for her Chicago appearance at the debutante ball. But by now Alice is clearly resentful of her mother’s heavy-handed control of her life, and impulsively elopes with a handsome young man who is also a drunk and, somewhat like the men in “Houston…” regularly beats her. Six years later she divorces, enlisting in the army where she serves as a World War II intelligence officer.  
     We also now perceive that Alice may have some lesbian tendencies, but she quickly squelches any such desires and, almost again on a whim, marries another veteran, Col. Huntingdon Sheldon (Alex Wells), with whom she keeps a romantic distance, while he fondly looks after her. By this time she is also working on graphic art (she had a work shown at the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington, D.C) and some manages to obtain a Ph.D in experimental psychology (these things not featured in our theatrical presentation of her life), but yet she obviously still feels vaguely unsatisfied.
      Part of the problem is her conflicting notions of her self-worth—and who wouldn’t be uncertain about oneself given the complete self-assurance of her mother—she becomes determined to write, not the travelogues of mother, but in a genre she had long admired, science fiction—insisting that her husband never tell her mother of her new venture.
     We suddenly realize who that woman sitting it the spaceship’s pilot-seat truly is, as the now Virginia housewife determines to take control of her life by writing under a pseudonym (James Ferrero taking on the role of her pseudonymous self), James Tiptree, Jr. So begins her incredible career, wherein as she put it elsewhere, “His pen was my prick,” allowing her to perhaps create a kind of transgender self in a time when it was simply unthinkable. For decades, through her imaginary self, Alice made not only a new career, but a new identity filled with the possibilities of being a male in a world that still held women in their homes. She could create strong men and kill them off, weak women and give them dignity. She finally had the power to kill off whole universes if she chose.
      Only when her own mother died, and she took a small break in her writing, did it become apparent who James Tiptree, Jr. really was. Her science-fiction fans were shocked by the revelation, and questions arose about what masculine and feminine writing was—the inklings, we can imagine, of the gender issues that are still being struggled with today, particularly given that the Trump administration has just announced their intention to define individuals only by their sexual parts.
      Even though she continued to write under the Tiptree name for another decade, she understandably must have felt she had lost control of her voice, and when her husband was in ill-health and could no longer care for himself, and she herself was suffering from bad health due to years of smoking, she shot her husband and put the gun—the one we see in that very first scene—her head, creating a double suicide.
      Huskey does not give us any easy answers to this tragedy. We must work them out of her purposely fragmented work ourselves. But the issues here are not only contemporary ones but force us to go back in time to wonder how many others—and there were far too many—who felt they had to tamp down their talents and their voices for fear of cultural shunning. I think its so fascinating that this author chose an alternative reality, both imaginatively and in terms of gender, to demonstrate her talents. When that was taken away, there was little left. She was simply a little old lady in Virginia writing well-crafted fantasies.
      I should add, that besides the cast members I mention above, all the ensemble players, including Kamar Elliott, Emma Zakes Green, Nathan Nonhof, Robert Paterno, and Ashley Steed were quite convincing. The lighting by Rose Malone was memorable. I’ll be back to worship at the altar of this small space soon.

Los Angeles, October 29, 2018
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (October 2018).

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