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Arts Festival Review: Apollo 13: Mission Control

Arts Festival Review: Apollo 13: Mission Control

Review by Lyndon Hood

Apollo 13: Mission Control
27 February – 9 March
Downstage Theatre

The purpose of Bats Theatre's 'Stab' programme, most recently brought us Live at Six and Death and the Dream Life of Elephants is to develop genuinely new theatre. Apollo 13, from the 2008 Stab season, has been an obvious success. Not only is its format unique and its technolgy ambitious, but it has since been expanded and reprised and now returns again in the Art Festival's RESTAGE series of revisited local productions.

Downstage Theatre is transformed into NASAs 1970 mission control, with an impressive chunk of the audience behid their own chunky consoles, each with an allocated purpose. And before the show one of the audience – in a move that later ups both the stakes and the comedy – is selected as a pilot for the the famously ill-fated Apollo 13 mission.

You – and even if you're not in possession of a control console yourself, you are in on the action – have to do what it takes to bring them home.

Even if the tasks don't necessarily make total sense. There is a certain, slightly old-fashioned, genre of computer game that sees periods of adventure, interspersed with puzzles that often have only a symbolic relationship to the problem at hand. It's a bit like that. Except live and multiplayer with a roomful of other people willing you to succeed. And some fascinating characters abusing and cajoling you down the right path.

The cast is seasoned in their roles. Not least as characters: Mission Control is under the hard-assed adminstration of Flight Director Gene Krantz, where a keen second in command and a grounded astronaut adding comedy and conflict as hard decisions are made. Our plucky astronauts appear on video relay with live two-way audio connection. Also on video is a rather endearing interpretation of TV presenter Walter Cronkite, and images of various stage of the rocket launch which were (mostly) sychronised with the action.

But they are equally adept in their job in keeping the show running; creating panic and tension; dealing seamlessly and entertainingly with the audience participation the show requires; requesting, hinting and occasionally bludgeoning those audience/participants down the right track (though in our case it wasn't quite clear whether the medical branch did their job or not).

One interest aspect of the production is how real people deal with actual (if contrived) pressure situations. There are a number of moments created where somebody has to do something, and that someone is not one of the actors. In seeing what is required (not always obvious) and then doing it (probably moving outside their comfort zone), the someone who does what's needed is recognised as the hero of that moment. Anxiety over audience participation is just another obstacle that has to be overcome to get our astronauts back home.

Apollo 13 has moment of sweetness, excitement, tension and humour. Above all, it is involving. Even from where I was, tucked up in Downstage's balcony, deep in the the 'press gallery' of mission control, I felt we had all done something together.


RESTAGE to Support New Zealand Performance
Previous productions: Revolutionary theatre APOLLO 13 to orbit NZ - Apollo 13 set to launch with Mighty party - Apollo 13 boldly goes where no theatre has gone
Arts Festival website: APOLLO 13: Mission Control
Scoop Full Coverage: Arts Festival 2010

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