‘Inflatable Space’ tells the tale of two men involved in the ‘Voyager I’ spacecraft mission. ‘Voyager I’ lifts off in 1977. Its hope is to contact aliens. Onboard is a ‘Golden Record’. If played by extra-terrestrial life, it will deliver media curated to express the diversity of life on Earth.
Thaddeus Phillips multi-roles. He first portrays a playwright developing a play about Voyager I. The playwright is awe-stricken by space and has a childlike wonder. It is a wonderful performance. He pads around light-footed, eyes soft and warm with excitement. He calls space organizations and asks questions he and his kid have about missions.
Phillips later portrays a scientist working in a space laboratory. At one point, his co-scientist stands in the spacecraft and gives a thoughtful, introverted speech about dimensions and how what’s happening now could be happening at the same time somewhere else. Then Phillips’ scientist pops up in the background. He delivers the same speech with dramatic facial expressions, and as though he knows he is saying something extremely clever. Then another him pops up with a delivery even more unlikely for a scientist. The contrast between the two scientists was hilarious. I loved this unusual portrayal and its suggestion that anyone can be a scientist.
The play’s structure blurs the lines between the playwright imagining he’s involved in the mission and the scenes where the playwright’s actor is. This is inspiring as it brings a seemingly impossible story closer to reality and validates imagination. Ean Sheehy plays the other scientist working on Voyager I. His finest scene is when he meets the playwright in his office to talk about his questions. It is set in 2027 and imagines that he has just lost contact with Voyager. His quiet introspectiveness is an antidote to how attitudes to space are expected to be big and explosive.
This play is an antidote to assumptions about how science should be carried out. The scientists use rudimentary equipment. There’s an old oil lamp for light, and they clean the spacecraft with a cloth and home cleaning fluid. The spacecraft is imagined using a donut-like inflatable that inflates comically slowly. Phillips’ playwright assembles a stunning model Voyager I with takeaway rubbish from a bin. The props and lighting are sometimes incredibly beautiful. 470 million years later, aliens step onto a misty Earth for the first time, their headlamps shining. The show creates a sense of possibility and a recognition of our subconscious love of Earth.
It is historically accurate in arguing that space science has not always been done in high-tech environments. A space convention is held in a motel. In the background are sounds of people talking and laughing, making it hard for the scientist speaker to be heard. The diagrams on his little projected screen are simple. The fundamental point of contact with aliens is intended to be a diagram of a hydrogen atom, the basic physical component of everything. The scientists think a scientifically advanced alien civilization would recognize it.
All this said, some scenes and lighting make the play feel unnaturally eccentric. Some of these are the red and green flashing lights in a thunderstorm, strobe lighting, and a telephone attached to a mobile phone.
Overall, though, this production is visually, emotionally and intellectually invigorating.