Review: In ‘Cosmos,’ Female Astronauts Dance Toward the Stars

Review: In ‘Cosmos,’ Female Astronauts Dance Toward the Stars

Early on in “Cosmos,” a new production by the French theater director Maëlle Poésy, three performers walk slowly onstage, their bodies hidden in full spacesuits. There are plenty of clues in the playbill. After all, “Cosmos” was inspired by the Mercury 13, a group of American women who took part in a ’60s program that proved their fitness for space travel, but who never blasted off.

Yet when they took their helmets off to reveal three women, I caught myself feeling surprised. Subconsciously, I realized, I still expected astronauts to be men.

“Cosmos,” presented at the Théâtre Gérard Philipe, in Saint-Denis, a Paris suburb, brightly deconstructs this stereotype. The production belongs to an increasingly prominent theater genre: plays that center women’s stories as a form of historical or artistic redress, with the explicit aim of challenging conventional narratives.

It’s a tricky exercise for writers and directors, as overly didactic productions quickly feel heavy-handed. Not here. Poésy and her co-writer, Kevin Keiss, delve into the space dream that fueled three of the Mercury 13 — Jerrie Cobb, Jane Briggs Hart and Wally Funk — in imaginative ways. There is upbeat dialogue and a few verbatim recreations of their public speeches, but “Cosmos” also makes use of movement to show the women striving toward the freedoms of space. The cast of five break open the large white wall that frames the action, and use dance and acrobatic sequences to express the intensity of Mercury 13’s training program and frustration at gender inequality.

This allows Poésy to explore their trajectories without getting bogged down in the (eye-popping) details. As we learn, Cobb was just 18 when she got her commercial pilot’s license; later, she inaugurated new air routes across some of the most dangerous South American landscapes and flew humanitarian supplies on the continen for decades. Briggs Hart was a World War II veteran, the wife of Senator Philip A. Hart, a long-serving Michigan Democrat, and a mother of eight when she successfully passed the Mercury 13 tests.

“Cosmos” isn’t the first attempt to reclaim the women’s place in the history of space travel. In 2018, Netflix released a documentary about this pioneering group and the sexist attitudes that ultimately shut down the test program, “Mercury 13”; the Apple TV show “For All Mankind” also imagined what might have happened if women had been selected for a moon landing. Books, articles and an American play, Laurel Ollstein’s “They Promised Her the Moon,” have been written about Cobb and her peers. Yet few will have heard of them in Europe.

The Mercury 13’s program, privately funded and hidden from public view, was an initiative of William Randolph Lovelace II, a NASA physician. Lovelace had heard whispers that the Soviet Union was considering sending a woman into space (in 1963, it did: Valentina Tereshkova). But Lovelace doesn’t appear in “Cosmos,” which focuses on Cobb, Briggs Hart and Funk as they learn that they have been selected for the project.

As they detail the medical and physical tests that followed — think frozen water injected into ears, extreme sports and isolation tanks — the cast of five women begins to perform staccato movements choreographed by Leïla Ka, a rising French dance-maker. They kneel, crouch, lie down, get up again.

Later, when they learn via telegram that the program has been canceled, despite the fact that they outperformed men on a number of metrics, they return to dance — this time frantically. In ’60s-style dresses, they pretend to apply lipstick, and touch their faces and torsos, as if trapped by expectations of femininity. Caroline Arrouas is especially striking as Briggs Hart, at one point taking off her high heels and banging them against a portion of the wall until it collapses.

The women’s disappointment, and subsequent attempts to get Congress and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson to allow women into NASA’s space program, are interspersed with stories of women born after them. Dominique Joannon, playing an astrophysicist from Chile, talks movingly about a childhood fascination with the stars; and Elphège Kongombé Yamale, as an astrobiologist, explores what the 1969 moon landing meant to women in the Central African Republic.

Space and flight are metaphors throughout. Two performers — Liza Lapert, who plays Funk, and Joannon — are experienced acrobats, and at one point they climb the wall, opening little traps to let warm orange light through. Joannon delivers a galactic monologue while hanging from a bar high above the stage.

In the final scene, Lapert climbs a rope center stage. As she hovers above the cast, she talks about Cobb’s and Briggs Hart’s deaths, then explains that Funk’s dream finally came true in 2021, when she became the oldest person to go into space, at 82, on a Blue Origin flight.

“When the rocket left the ground, I took you with me,” she tells the others below, before resuming her climb, all the way to the lights hanging above the stage. The symbolism was obvious, yet neat: Finally, one of the Mercury 13 had completed their mission.

Cosmos

Through Jan. 21 at the Théâtre Gérard Philipe, in Saint-Denis, France; theatregerardphilipe.com.

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