The Planetarium of Past, Present and Future

Image courtesy Electric Theatre Company.

Site-specific theater offers artists some of the most challenging and engaging obstructions. When done well, it demands that the work draw from that space at that time, and be shaped by both. The space becomes the vocal folds and breath for the consonants and vowels of the piece. The Electric Company is certainly no stranger to this kind of work. For their latest show, the company has inhabited the H.R. MacMillan Space Center (of giant steel crab fame, and a.k.a. the Planetarium for reasons of sentiment) to put on You Are Very Star.

When was the last time you went to the Planetarium right? If you’re like me it was to sit down to a Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd laser show, quite stoned, on some high school evening— a relationship and visitor-ship that is not glossed over in the show. These nostalgic moments form one thread in the dense weave of You Are Very Star. While our recollection of the building may be preserved in the amber of memory, time has maintained her steady march as ‘You Are Very Star’ has its run mere days before the space center undergoes extensive renovations and sets to launch itself into the digital realm.

It is in this time of transition, reflection and projection that the Electric Company has stepped in to channel the Planetarium, to speak to and from its past, present and future. You Are Very Star takes us back to 1968 when the planetarium was built and the Apollo 8 launch enthralled the imaginations of North America, to the 2013 present with a hands-on investigation of the Space Center and forward to a possible 2048 wherein humanity is poised on the edge of the technological singularity.

The plot of the show follows the ripples of characters’ experiences through these time frames to create a thread of events and relationships, with the Space center at its heart. In 1968 we meet a professor at the peak of an existential crisis who seeks new meaning in the recent exploration of space. Through this character, which Michael Rinaldi plays with deadpan middle-aged angst, we see a personal search for self within the universe. I also loved the use of almost clumsy-adolescent-Wes-Anderson-style analog projection in comparison with the high-tech bonanza of the third section. I see this contrast as an example of the attention to dramaturgical detail and arc that makes me tend to view the whole show as several thematic evolutions rather than a linear narrative. During the 2013 section we are invited to participate in a scavenger hunt through the space center, investigating its real present state. This event is incorporated into the story of the space, blurring the diegetic lines of the show in a very playful way so we become the actors within the story around us. The final future section takes place in the iconic Star Theater and completes the relational arc from personal to universal scope.

It was here that the show lost me a bit in the tension between the linear story and the thematic questions that the planetarium demands be explored. The Planetarium exists as a site of wonder, as a conduit between and container for humanity and the stars. It is a place to discover the relationship between man and his heavens, and how in locating and identifying the structures of the universe, we are actually finding our own place in the structure of the cosmos.

The questions the Planetarium houses are vast and profound. In reaching toward them, You Are Very Star loses some of the specificity and cohesiveness of its plot. However, it was in the third section that the show found and expressed its richest material: the questions on place and relationship in the universe. This section had many enjoyable surprises including an architectural illumination of the star theater; the use of surfaces and projection; and the ‘I seriously hope the future is like that ‘ costume design. Overall my experience of the show not only allowed me to reconstruct the Planetarium of my past, but also reflect on its place and role in the city. In its most satisfying moment, its final reveal, You Are Very Star created room for me to engage with those most profound questions— those questions spoken from the heart of the place, the same questions that always rise when looking up to the night sky and wondering.