Not too much drama in ‘Expedition’

It was one of the more dramatic events in the history of space flight. In 2003, after the Columbia shuttle disaster, two American astronauts and one Russian cosmonaut were stranded on International Space Station Expedition 6: a life-and-death situation, but one that was immediately overshadowed in the news, and the public’s imagination, by the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

With “Expedition 6,” Hollywood actor Bill Pullman attempts to bring the incident to the foreground again. Created and directed by Pullman and presented in association with the Chabot Space and Science Center, the show makes its world premiere at the Magic Theatre as the first production of the company’s 2007-08 season. Billed as a “docu-drama,” it will doubtless attract science types, stargazers and those hoping to catch a glimpse of Pullman, who was in attendance at a recent matinee.

For a general theater audience, the piece offers a fairly dull experience.

Pullman shaped his script from public record and various media sources, and an ensemble cast of eight performs it on a nearly empty stage with minimal props. In addition to astronauts Kenneth Bowersox and Donald Pettit, and cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin, the characters portrayed include science experts, NASA psychologists, reporters, TV anchors, the astronauts’ nervous wives and a clownish California millionaire who bought a trip into space.

There’s plenty of motion in the production — hanging overhead is a web of trapezes, which the actors use with balletic skill in solo, duo and group configurations. Watching them swing, turn, glide and simply float above the stage (trapeze choreography by Robert Davidson), it’s easy to imagine the weightlessness of space travel. A live soundtrack by Gary Grundel adds to the atmosphere.

What Pullman hasn’t managed to do is mine the human drama of the event. The show makes a few strong points about NASA scientists who hadn’t done their homework, and the media that turned away from the event after it became clear it wasn’t disastrous enough to make headlines.

But it’s hard to care about anyone onstage; the central characters are woefully one-dimensional, and the minor ones come across like talking heads. Sometimes it’s unclear who is speaking at all. Everyone delivers the lines in a dry monotone better suited to a science lecture than a theater piece.

Meanwhile, Pullman ’s attempt to draw links between the Iraq war and the shabby treatment the astronauts received — they were left in space for four months, long after their bodies and spirits had started to deteriorate — feels tacked on. By the end, the real tragedy of “Expedition 6” is the dramatic potential left untapped.

Expedition 6

Where: Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Buchanan Street and Marina Boulevard, San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2:30 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 7

Tickets: $20-$45; sliding scale $5-$25 Wednesdays a half-hour before performance

Contact: (415) 441-8822; www.magictheatre.org

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