Few stories can inspire wonder as does the dawn of the Space Age, where in a dozen years we went from launching the first satellite to having men walk on the Moon. This wonder is faithfully revisited in One Small Step, by the U.K. theatre company Oxford Playhouse which made a too brief stop at the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater as part of ON THE FRINGE: Eye on Edinburgh.
From the first glimpse of the joyfully cluttered stage it is clear that this story will involve a trip through the imagination. Two actors (Robin Hemmings and Oliver Millingham) play a combined total of 41 characters while using mostly household props to act out the adventure of the space race between the United States and the former Soviet Union.
The play has a charming sense of whimsy. At the start the two actors wear pillows on their heads when portraying the Russians who soon boast about the launch into orbit of the Sputnik satellite, illustrated with a beach ball. Rocket launches are shown with cardboard boxes and a mailing tube, a plunger, a lamp shade, plastic buckets and figures, and even a can of Spam. Perhaps the only item that would be difficult to replicate for a child reenacting the play would be an old-fashioned slide projector that shows images of the moon.
The story moves swiftly, covering a dozen years and several space flights. This narrative speed and childlike enthusiasm of the actors helped hold the attention of the children. The actors excel at some inspired silliness, including funny accents, vocal sound effects, and skilled mime for actions such as their floating around when simulating zero gravity, which amused the entire audience. Older patrons could also enjoy the portrayals of U.S. Presidents, famous astronauts, and Walter Cronkite as a chronicler of the story.
The entertainment is leavened with ample doses of history and the occasional somber moments. Some of the tragic deaths that were a part of the space race are reported. Both the dramatic and the exiting moments of the story are enhanced by the skilled used of recorded music as underscoring.
The magic of this production comes from its ability to engage the audience completely in the story. When a small plastic capsule is simulating the lunar landing while actual voice transmissions are reenacted, a hush falls over the theatre. When an astronaut climbs down the lunar module (a file cabinet) to take “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” the audience is thrilled. That’s as fine an illustration of the power of theatre to engage the imagination as you are ever likely to experience.
One Small Step
Written by David Hastings
Directed by Toby Hulse
Produced by Oxford Playhouse
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
This production has closed.
One Small Step was part of the festival On the Fringe: Eye on Edinburgh which continues thru Nov 13, 2010 at the Kennedy Center.