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Review: Mercury Poisoning at KXT On Broadway

Review by Andrea Bunjamin


They call it a ‘glass ceiling’ for a reason. Because one of the most painful experiences for those of us who have been marginalised is seeing your capabilities for clear greatness, but having reality pull you down like gravity.


Mercury Poisoning by Snatched Theatre Collective’s Madeline Stedman is mostly set in the 1960s between the US and the Soviet Union amidst the heightened era of space exploration – where humankind had reached new leaps and bounds beyond their imagination. This period parallels the lives of three women, each personally fighting for their own marks in history during a time when they are so often dismissed in its chapters. This historical fiction was conceived when Stedman’s experience watching a scuppered rocket launch left her wondering why the Space Race couldn’t continue to extend its revolutionary successes to women after sending Valentina Tereshkova to space. Through the utmost level of care in her writing and real-life inspirations behind each character, the show concretely questions the true idea and cost of what it means to be ‘The First’. 


Upon first impressions of the premise, my biggest curiosity was how this production was going to depict ‘outer space’ on a small stage. Prior to the start, we were all pleasantly surprised in having no choice but to look up. An atmospheric translucent cloud sheeting hung from the ceiling with a centre hole that made room for a single spotlight, shaped almost like a living flower. Each corner is attached to strings that both contract and relax. Beyond it, featured lighting fixtures that changed colours resembling our stratosphere, or maybe even our stars. It breathed. A wonderful air for opportunity. Through the production design, the minimal and mesmerising space had enabled its performers to inhabit ‘a less is more’ approach as they weave between the narratives of each perspective. To look into fragmented memories and the past. And despite my one wish that this expansive story be told on a bigger stage, the team managed to make it all come together. From the combination of all its elements, we get to travel through settings: from a sensory deprivation tank to a rocket ship.


Jimi Rawlings’s lighting design created palettes that seamlessly indicated when a narrative starts and when it has ended. While sound designers Rowan Yeomans & Jay Rea mixed music, voiceovers, and track effects helped populate the poignant moments in the script; like the tensions of a courtroom hearing or the funny jigs of a dancefloor. The band duo's background in music-making and manipulating noises distinctly comes through. Meg Anderson’s wide experience in costume design provided a visual element of the 1960’s. Her versatile coordination of quick changes for every actor enabled us to see the nimbleness of her selections. 


Starring a strong cast of 12 performers involving character switches, each personality on stage soared in a way that pushes the three arcs. The biggest praise I could say about this cast was how attuned they all were to one another – whether it be their choreographed movements or their understanding of the emotional weight needed in each scenario. What a unit. 


From the stage direction of White Box Theatre’s Kim Hardwick, and producer, Tahlee Leeson, audiences are insightfully told those parallels between, truth and fiction. Especially for those who might not be too familiar with the events of the Space Race.


A hardworking young pilot from Oklahoma, Molly (Teodora Matović), wants nothing more than to get in the program that will take her to space. The one known as Mercury 13, a group aimed at screening and testing women for spaceflight and founded by Dr Randolph ‘Randy’ Lovelace (Brendan Miles). Based on aviator Wally Funk, Molly isn’t afraid to push herself to the limit. Along the way she encounters the various women in the program and the differing/opposing perspectives of others that she needed to contend with. Such as the experienced Janey (Sarah Jane Starr), who acts as a mentor-like figure to Molly, Bea (Charlotte Saluzsinszky) a fellow program member, and even from the overconfident astronaut, John Glenn (Shaw Cameron). An exemplary theme that was successfully explored in Stedman’s script is when one door opens for a pioneer, it is immediately shut away for others. Like Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ Cochran (Melissa Jones), a leading aeromedical pilot in US aviation that in real-life had a morally disputing stance towards her fellow female peers.


From across the continent a different main character faces the conundrums of being ‘The First’. Valeria (Violette Ayad), a dutiful Soviet parachutist who is involved in her own journey and wants to bring pride to her country. Just like the first woman in space, she adopted the call sign ‘Chaika’ and made history. And yet, hasn’t reached the stars. The true progress. Stuck in a marriage with an estranged husband (Nikita Khromykh), she establishes a fascinating dynamic with Yuri Gagarin (Jack Richardson). A man who to an extent understands her feelings of this success. Someone who respects her but is direct about reality’s woes and delivers one of the most notable lines in the play regarding generational change. 


And lastly, we are introduced to Nicole ‘Nickki’ (Shawnee Jones), a struggling Black actress who desires to make a name for herself. With the help of a friend, Maryanne (Anna Clark), she tries to establish herself in LA. Her character closely resembles Nichelle Nichols, a groundbreaking actress and the first Black woman featured in a major TV series. Unlike the other two main characters, her challenges in space are represented differently in the form of a science fiction show and her place in Hollywood. She questions herself: in a world where so much goes on, what value does her aspirations have in making a change? A question that comes full circle from her long-time friend Harry (Tinashe Mangwana).


After pondering about the story, some of us might be able to tell that the script’s intentions radiate a certain word. Hope. To set a precedent for people who are like you to succeed, we have no choice but to be the first. And to hope we can raise others along the way.


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