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'Spacestation 1985' takes geek vibe back to the recent past

Trio's deliberately low-tech, dark comedy travels to Halley's Comet to explore the foibles of the human psyche

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Puppets round out the cast of the "anti-technology" dark comedy

Remember back in the past when we had a science-filled future, when growing up to be an astronaut was just about the coolest thing a kid could imagine, and everything would be better when humans conquered outer space?

"Spacestation 1985," a play by Jeff Mills, Jason Newman and Brent Werzner, heads back to that future — to the year 1985, actually. The show opens today at the Off Center.

The dark comedy finds two less-than-stellar astronauts — rejects from NASA — on a strange, privately-funded space journey. Their mission? Mine rocks from Halley's Comet. To get to that corner of deep space, the astronauts — one of whom is named Kilroy, no less, after the graffiti meme "Kilroy was here" — embark on a yearlong rocket ride, taking turns manning the ship as each goes into medically induced hibernation for a month.

That journey into the farthest reaches of the solar system morphs into an existential odyssey of the human psyche that reveals the foibles of mortality.

It might seem that such a science-inspired production would be rife with multimedia theatrical wizardry.

Not so, says producer Natalie George. Hand-built puppets — operated by five puppeteers — augment the cast of two actors (Newman along with Bradley Carlin) on a set that's more cobbled-together found objects than slick stagecraft.

The deliberately low-tech vibe gives the show an innocence, George says. "There's no special effects," she says. "Puppets liberate the actors and heighten the sense of play." And puppets allow you to anthropomorphize things such as a rocket's control console, which, in a riff on "2001: A Space Odyssey," is named Pam in "Spacestation 1985."

George, along with the trio of playwrights, developed the show in 2009 while in New York, where it had a workshop production at a tiny Manhattan theater.

Mills, Newman and Werzner came from a sketch comedy background. George has chops as a lighting designer and experience in the puppet world at the National Puppetry Conference and the Jim Henson Foundation (the organization started by The Muppets creator). They in turn enlisted Austin's go-to composer for theater and movies, Graham Reynolds, to create an original score. And they roped in Foley artist Buzz Moran to create a soundscape.

"We always meant for this to be an Austin show," says George. "It just took us three years to finally get it staged here.

"The show has a geek vibe. In this current era of the zombie and the vampire, it's nice to get back to the kind of crazy sci-fi that used to be so popular. There's something about today's technology that's so anti-science. But our show is really kind of anti-technology."

Contact Jeanne Claire van Ryzin at 445-3699

"Spacestation 1985"