Sackerson’s The Distance of the Moon is marvelously inventive in word, movement, interpretation

More than the first half of Sackerson’s marvelously inventive premiere production of The Distance of the Moon overflows with magical expectations. Weaving together the lines of Italo Calvino’s short story converted to dialogue, the story line additions of playwright Morag Shepherd, the spot-on choreography of Breanne Saxton and the translucent sound design of Shawn Francis Saunders, the cast reminds the audience of our endless enchantment with the moon.

It is a universal compulsion that has delighted and confounded writers, scientists, artists, prophets, sailors, military strategists, ancient civilizations, tarot card readers and, most emphatically, love-starred dreamers. There is particular delight on those nights of the super full moons when, indeed, it seems we are closer than ever to Earth’s sole satellite.

Elizabeth Golden. The Distance of the Moon, Sackerson, Italo Calvino/Morag Shepherd/Breanne Saxton, directed by Dave Mortensen. Photo Credit: Ashley Thalman, Matt Peterson.

In the Wasatch Theatre Company venue, converted from discontinued retail space at the Gateway in downtown Salt Lake City, Sackerson once again displays its predilection for experimental staging and minimal resources and how both are leveraged for maximum effect. The simple rocking boat is converted effortlessly into a ladder so the characters can reach the moon and then reassembled as a boat without need for pause in the stage movement. Platform scaffolding underscores just how the close the moon is to the Earth, as described in Calvino’s story. Meanwhile, the audience on both sides is positioned to observe the action with bird’s-eye clarity. Dave Mortensen directs the new production.

For last year’s holiday season, Sackerson awakened the charms, whimsies and pure pleasures of childhood with an adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, augmented by solo cello and choreography by Graham Brown.

With Italo Calvino’s story as the foundation, Sackerson deepens the emotional range while preserving the innocent, if not accurate, amazement with science that inspired the author to write stories for his Cosmicomics collection, published 50 years ago. Many holiday tales trivialize and streamline the meanings of roots in home, romance and true love. In The Distance of the Moon, Sackerson lets the magic sing as clearly as ever but it also gives space to the complex, conflicted emotions all human beings encounter. The anticipation and disappointment of love never take a holiday.

The Distance of the Moon, Sackerson, Italo Calvino/Morag Shepherd/Breanne Saxton, directed by Dave Mortensen. Photo Credit: Ashley Thalman, Matt Peterson.

Played with wisely layered textures by Jahnavi Alyssa, Qfwfq (pronounced KIHF-wihfk or k-FWIFF-ih-kuh) is, as Calvino fans know, the omnipresent narrator in all of his science fiction short stories who takes on various forms. The play comprises equal thirds: Calvino’s text converted almost precisely into dialogue, Shepherd’s new dialogue between two main characters who are alone on the moon for a month and Saxton’s choreography that interprets Calvino’s narrative details with the proper literary integrity.

Early in the play, Qfwfq relates to the audience, “Earth and Moon, practically equal, fought over the space between them. I’ll tell you something else: a body that descends to the Earth from the satellite is still charged for a while with lunar force and rejects the attraction of our world.” The line anchors the script’s literary mission, delivered in fine form by the cast.

This also is a briskly paced production because the choreography by Saxton, a dance artist with the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, augments so accurately Calvino’s text in narrative moments that call for extensive physical movement. Brown returns this year cast as Qfwfq’s Deaf Cousin. His character is the most adept in climbing to the moon to harvest “moon milk,” which is nothing like the traditional cheese of nursery rhymes and other children’s tales. The Deaf Cousin has no dialogue but he figures enormously in Calvino’s story – a point underscored by Shepherd’s dialogue additions between Qfwfq and the wife of Captain Vhd Vhd (pronounced (VID-vid) when they are alone on the moon. Credit to Sackerson for a convincing case of incorporating narrative-based movement into the stage action not as an auxiliary element but one that completes the story line’s puzzle with impact that does not distract nor disturb the core of Calvino’s story. Complex, athletic, graceful and confident, the choreography’s ambitions are manifested in Brown’s performance.

In their script lines and theatrical movement, Mark Fossen adds the pertinent gravitas to the story’s emotional tensions as the Captain, who is more than eager to see his wife off to the moon, and Samantha Matsukawa offers the appropriate lightened counterpoint as the young, almost-too-curious-for-her-own good Xlthlx (pronounced (ZIHL-thuh-licks or ICK-sul-thlicks). At several points in the play’s first half, the choreography occurs in such a dense, packed space as all five cast members move and rock the boat or climb the ladder while most of them utter their lines. It is a thrilling sensation. The rocking motions are vigorous but yet controlled. The actors scale the ladder and scaffolding with an acrobat’s ease but yet convey the requisite eye contact and tone to fill out their characters.

Graham Brown. The Distance of the Moon, Sackerson, Italo Calvino/Morag Shepherd/Breanne Saxton, directed by Dave Mortensen. Photo Credit: Ashley Thalman, Matt Peterson.

That elated sense of magic disappears from the stage in the extended scene featuring Shepherd’s dialogue additions, as it should. Calvino’s story does not provide extensive detail about the month that Qfwfq and the Captain’s Wife are on the moon. As noted in The Utah Review preview of the production, a love triangle sits at the core of The Distance of the Moon. And, when we get to the closing scene and epilogue that returns the play to Calvino’s words, we can appreciate how Shepherd fleshed out the emotional dynamics of one’s unrequited love and the other’s bitterness of wanting to be discovered by the person whom she truly loves.

Qfwfq, who bestows her faith in magic, is more than ready to breach proprieties to experience the physical delights of the Captain’s Wife. However, Elizabeth Golden commands the role of the Captain’s Wife with utmost realism in emotional character. When she rebuffs Qfwfq’s heartfelt advances, the audience hearing it senses the sting of rejection but also feels her bitter frustration at not being noticed by the right one. Intoxicated by romantic anticipation, Qfwfq tells the Captain’s Wife, “You make me wanna write poetry. A play, no, no, not a play, a story. A story that never ends. And I want to write it on your skin – the part right underneath your armpit.” The wife tersely tells her to stop. Qfwfq is unaffected. She says, “I don’t care about age. These planets are so old that they make age seem like a vastness of everything and nothing. The zinc mountains laugh when we talk about age.”

Jahnavi Alyssa, The Distance of the Moon, Sackerson, Italo Calvino/Morag Shepherd/Breanne Saxton, directed by Dave Mortensen. Photo Credit: Ashley Thalman, Matt Peterson.

Nothing Qfwfq says moves the wife. She resists every humorous phrase, offer of physical touch, poetic turn of phrase (“the craters seem like they’re crying”) or good-natured tall tale. Her only lapse of emotional defense comes when she tears up at hearing Qfwfq talk about the Deaf Cousin. Qfwfq says that he never became upset at losing fights when he was a kid. “And if he would lose something, he would let it go, like it had no value whatsoever. Things slide off of him, with no past, no heavy history, no anxious future. If something is meant to happen, or stitched into the tapestry of the universe, he just, helps it along, like it already is the thing it’s meant to be.” It’s such an intense performance that juxtaposes beautifully against the exhilarating magical sense of the play’s opening. The actors give generously their hearts to meaningful performances.

Sackerson continues to explore a gutsy segment of the independent theatrical spectrum in Salt Lake City and The Distance of the Moon offers a refreshing, enchanting and yet sobering reflection on the strengths and vulnerabilities of the human spirit and the universal quest for authentic love.

Rounding out the production crew are Madeline Ashton (scenic design), Jessica Rubin (costume design) and Miranda Giles (stage management).

Performances continue each weekend (Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m) through Dec. 21-22, along with matinee performances at 3 p.m. on Dec. 9, 15, 16 and 22. All performances will take place at the Wasatch Theatre Company at 124 South and 400 West in the south end of the Gateway.

For more information and tickets, see Sackerson’s web site.

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