The concept of making a show in outer space is simultaneously nostalgic and futuristic – it evokes images of all those 60’s children collecting spaceship toys, but with Virgin Galactic promising, delaying, and promising again to take tourists to space it also gives the air of 21st century cruise ship entertainment. Could live art take over where Disney stopped? Let’s hope so.
Empress Stah’s space odyssey is for the time being still less about actual space travel and devising beyond the realms of Newton’s head injuries (although she did manage to crowdfund her way to a zero gravity flight in the USA), and more about what could be roughly rounded up to a half philosophical, half political feeling of intergalactic space. What that actually means is that her piece Empress Stah in Space offers rants on religion as the opium for the masses, a misanthropic and properly angry Mother Nature, a suitably enraged and idiosyncratic song by Peaches, as well as a good deal of aerial work. Directed by Ron Athey and devised by the pair, this show however spends most of the time facing the harsh realities of a theatre black box – namely that it’s not outer space, which means it has its limitations – spatial as well as technical.
This would be quite a snippy comment to make, were it not for the fact that it’s precisely these limitations that hinder Empress Stah in Space in so many ways, making it look patchy, distilling much of the rhythm, and ultimately reducing the show to a simple series – rather than a flow – of dramaturgically intertwined images. Aerial work – one of Empress Stah’s signature skills – loses its potency in the small scale of the venue; moments of calm and almost meditative physical scenes are followed by clumsy negotiations of a technical nature; ropes and strings that connect and control the props collide harshly with the uber-futuristic set up of the work. This is of course true of many SF films of three or so decades ago – but they didn’t have the burden of high-value and high-gloss aesthetic, an element not very likely to sync with low-key technology issues. Imagine Empress Shah hanging off an Ikea table lamp, instead of a chandelier – not quite the same.
Behind all these issues, Empress Shah in Space is a collection of intriguing and self-contained passages. The ‘Mother Earth’ monologue, narrated by Lydia Lunch, gives the piece some contextual content; its enraged but sardonic nature fits perfectly with the final scene – in which the Empress is swinging above the stage, with shiny laser lights beaming out of her ass. Just before that a video is projected onto a white pyramid, an image that delivers a hefty amount of associations, even if some of them – those that evoke ancient nations and third eyes – might be slightly too obvious. In between those however, there’s an abundance of scenes that fail to be evocative; they are filled with acrobatics free from connotations (unless the ‘connection’ between temporary gravity disobedience and space as such is acknowledged), robotic movements that rarely manage to pass over that simple description and a great soundtrack whose main attraction is its space-like quality.
It’s clear that the intention here was to create a contemplative piece whose flow might only occasionally be interrupted by outbursts of energy and anger, one that invites everyone to relax but breathe in the atmosphere and think. There are moments where Empress Stah in Space creates that kind of tranquility turning into deathliness that apparently space is like; for the most part forever it doesn’t manage to create a working relationship between the realities of the more prosaic physical reality and the no air/no-resistance world in which it hopes to dwell.