- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 27, 2006

Where were you when the war in Iraq broke out? Kenneth D. Bowersox, Nikolai Budarin and Donald R. Pettit were stranded in deep space.

On March 22, 2003, the crew of Expedition 6 — two American astronauts and one Russian cosmonaut — awaited emergency rescue from the International Space Station. It was a little more than a month after the Columbia shuttle disaster of Feb. 1, and when the space travelers safely returned to Earth in May, it was the first time U.S. astronauts had landed in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which had to be supersized to accommodate taller, bigger American bodies.

This dramatic rescue mission was largely eclipsed by the 24/7 news reporting surrounding the invasion of Iraq. Bill Pullman, however, remembered.

The actor (“Independence Day,” “While You Were Sleeping,” “Scary Movie 4”) has traded in the Hollywood soundstage for the well-worn rehearsal space at Baltimore’s Theatre Project for the world premiere of his first play, “Expedition 6,” a space adventure he is creating with co-director Jennifer McCray Rincon in association with Denver’s National Theatre Conservatory.

“Expedition 6” blends aerial trapeze techniques with kinetic visual and musical elements to juxtapose the risky multinational space rescue with the precarious global climate spurred by the face-off between the West and radical Islam. The play’s narrative, which is culled directly from transcripts of NASA recordings and media reports, reveals the emotional and technical risks of space exploration — and terrestrial warfare.

A cast of eight — all actors in their final year of the conservatory’s master of fine arts program — portray a variety of people connected directly and indirectly to the space mission. “The actors undergo a special physical training in the low-flying trapeze,” explains Miss Rincon, who is co-chairman of acting at the conservatory. “This sort of acrobatic training was essential to bringing ‘Expedition 6’ to life.”

The project has been germinating in Mr. Pullman’s mind for a few years. “I’m an avid researcher and had a file on the Columbia Shuttle and another one on the buildup to our aiding Iraq,” he says, tugging at the beard he is growing to play science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick in an upcoming film. “I thought maybe I’d get a real playwright to do it.”

Back home in Montana, Mr. Pullman realized the state had plenty of great novelists but few playwrights. As for the theater scene, Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suite” was one of the major cultural draws.

“I decided the play would have no written dialogue, just excerpts from NASA communiques and media reports,” he says. “I wrote the first draft, and I was in a panic. I was constantly mucking with the text.”

Mr. Pullman needed to get “Expedition 6” out of his head and up on the stage. He contacted his longtime friend Miss Rincon, whom he had met in 1983 when he had had a role in an early Richard Greenberg play she was directing, “Blood Letters.” The two had recently reconnected when she had gone backstage to congratulate Mr. Pullman on his performance in the Broadway run of Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia.”

“I invited him to do a workshop of the play in 2004 at the conservatory,” Miss Rincon says. “He showed up with a slew of research and an outline.”

At this point, Mr. Pullman thought of “Expedition 6” as a musical piece. “Not a musical,” he emphasizes. “But I organized all the research, and it took on this form of six movements, each with a different beat and rhythm.”

It soon became apparent that no one had worked on anything like this before. “And that’s what made it exciting,” Miss Rincon says. “The process — and the play — is about finding who you are as a human being amid all this data and information. It started off journalistically but is now deeply poetic and moving.” “Expedition 6” also was workshopped in 2004 at Vassar, where Mr. Pullman finally hammered out an ending.

“Then, this spring I was at the Kennedy Center doing ‘The Subject Was Roses,’ and I thought D.C. would be receptive to a play about space exploration,” Mr. Pullman says. “This is like our whittling project — we get to it when we can.”

Mr. Pullman further honed the play through meetings with an astrophysicist who works on the Hubble and with Kevin McNeill, a program manager for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, who took him to Lockheed Martin’s Denver facility. There he met astronaut Bruce McCandless II, who completed the first untethered moon walk.

In July, the cast performed an excerpt from the play for invited guests at the Eisenhower Theater — in the wings, the only place the Kennedy Center would allow them to hang a trapeze.

Mr. Pullman would like “Expedition 6” to tour nationally, ideally playing in museums and science centers instead of traditional theater spaces. “The interface between theater and space science is intriguing,” he says. However, he recognizes the limits of live theater, noting that the approximately 550,000 people who saw him on Broadway in “The Goat” is far fewer than those who saw his least successful movie.

“There’s an innocence and directness to the piece that speaks to the excitement of being an astronaut without it being a look back at the space program,” Mr. Pullman says. “There’s nothing nostalgic about it.”

WHAT: “Expedition 6,” written and directed by Bill Pullman

WHERE: Baltimore Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St., Baltimore

WHEN: Today and tomorrow, 8 p.m.

TICKETS: Suggested $25 donation

PHONE: 410/752-8558

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