Photo by Larry EvansSpace exploration and theater don't have the most intimate of histories—and not just because we've been sending humans into space for 50 years and onto stages for 3,000. The canvas for space exploration is nothing less than the universe; a theater set is rarely bigger than your living room.
Ken Jones' 1987 play Darkside is one of the rare theatrical forays into the final frontier. At its best moments, this Rude Guerrilla production shows that theater's greatest asset—the power to prod the imagination and convey dramatic emotion through words rather than visual stimuli—can work even when it comes to space travel. The play vividly captures the intense tension and loneliness of two men trapped on the surface of the moon while their fellow astronaut, helplessly orbiting around them, desperately waits for a successful lunar launch that will unite them with his module so they can successfully return to Earth.
On that level, the play and production work. And if Jones had focused on merely our three astronauts-in-crisis, Darkside could be a great play. But apparently feeling he didn't have enough to work with, he hamstrings the soaring action and frequently eloquent poetics of his play with soap opera histrionics, told through a series of flashbacks intercut with the rapidly failing mission. The cheap infidelities, domestic squabbles, black-hatted journalists and implausible circumstances—such as a space program that apparently doesn't conduct rigorous enough psychological examinations to realize that one astronaut is prone to critical-mass emotional breakdowns—can sometimes make Darkside feel like Dallas dry-humping Apollo 13. The result is an ungainly, unsatisfying construct that makes you wish Jones had hit the delete key on every scene not set in space.
Still, Darkside ultimately delivers, thanks to some stellar acting by Jay Fraley, Ryan Harris and, particularly, Vince Campbell, who gets the most defined character and the best lines. When Campbell explains that space exploration is valid and important because it's the logical progression of humanity's inherent drive to redefine itself through movement, you might not agree with the politics—can't it also be seen as humanity's inherent drive to dominate and subjugate everything within its grasp?—but you feel the passion. Likewise with his articulation of what everyone who's ever seen this planet from outer space must surely feel: that heaven and earth have reversed themselves. It's like looking into God's face, he says, in a moving blend of science and poetry that skirts the eschatological and recalls the psychedelic hues of Robert Hunter's lines in the Grateful Dead's "Eyes of the World."
The greater consciousness and awareness that exploring space affords are in constant conflict with the passions, pettiness and other flaws of the characters in Darkside. Had Jones been able to express them without resorting to ham-fisted, melodramatic, all-too-terrestrial dialogue, or had this production been able to deliver them more subtly, this play could be riveting rather than rickety.
DARKSIDE AT EMPIRE THEATER, 200 N. BROADWAY, SANTA ANA, (714) 547-4688. FRI.-SAT., 8 P.M.; SUN., 2:30 P.M.; ALSO THURS., AUG. 28, 8 P.M. THROUGH AUG. 28. $10-$20.