When Tang Met Laika

The few who have visited outer space will readily tell you that it changed their lives, though they are generally at a loss to describe why. For those of us that have not been there or undergone a comparable experience, say a close encounter with a whale or death, it is difficult to understand the feeling. The same goes for love.

Ian Merrill Peakes as Patrick and Jessica Love as Elena
Ian Merrill Peakes as Patrick
and Jessica Love as Elena
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Curiously, such events often accompany one another: two people share an indescribable experience and they find an unspoken bond, which is what happens between Patrick (Ian Merrill Peakes), an American astronaut, and Elena (Jessica Love), a Russian cosmonaut, in Rogelio Martinez's When Tang Met Laika, now receiving its world premiere by the Denver Center Theatre Company.

Martinez, with impressive efforts from director Terrence J. Nolan and cast and crew, invites us into the mysteries of deep space and unshakeable attraction. There are complications, of course: how to convey weightlessness on a space station and love between two left-brained scientists, even if they are of opposite sexes.

The International Space Station
The International Space Station
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Concentric turntables carrying actors in opposite directions provide the metaphor for bodies floating in different directions. It's a simple solution that doesn't distract from the conversation taking place below five giant windows (projection screens) that reveal a rotating view of the cosmos, repleat with Earth rises and star fields that bring home the infinite solitude in which we are floating.

Plenty of action takes place on the ground as well—at Patrick's home near Houston, in a park near Elena's apartment in Moscow, at a gay disco bar, on the beach in Kitty Hawk (NC), a US Senator's office, and a few other spots—not to mention sojourns into the dreamstates and the netherworlds of ghosts that provide counterpoint the linear space-time rigors of rocket science and day-to-day tasks. Patrick sees his wife, Samantha (Megan Byrne), as he dreams; Elena is wide awake when sees her uncle Yuri Gagarin (R. Ward Duffy), the first Earth man in space, with Laika the dog, the first Earth being in space, both dead.

Megan Byrne as Samantha and Ian Merrill Peakes as Patrick
Megan Byrne as Samantha and
Ian Merrill Peakes as Patrick
Photo: Terry Shapiro
When Patrick returns to earth, fissures begin to appear in his relationship with Samantha, as he struggles to adjust to gravity, the absence of Elena, and the fresh memories of ethereal neighborhoods visited while aboard the International Space Station. Elena discusses her feelings with her father, Foma (Randy Moore), a former cosmonaut. A Young Russian Communist (Richard Thieriot) and a Young American Capitalist (M. Scott McLean), both retired, provide a drifting chorus, trying to outdo each other for bragging rights to everything from the famous Lake Placid Olympiad's hockey championship game (the "Miracle on Ice") to the space race (Sputnik, the Moon landing, and Mir).

R. Ward Duffy as Yuri Gagarin with Laika
R. Ward Duffy as Yuri Gagarin
with Laika
Photo: Terry Shapiro
The love triangle is not equilateral or conventional: Patrick and Elena have a remote, far-away look in their eyes, yet Peakes and Love find a resonant sub-text that makes sparks, while Samantha is earthy and passionate, with Byrne serving up healthy portions of humor and pathos. A series of rich cameos by Moore, with pitch-perfect support from Thieriot, McLean, and Duffy bring Martinez' subtle, well-crafted script to fruition.

Randy Moore as Foma and Jessica Love as Elena
Randy Moore as Foma and
Jessica Love as Elena
Photo: Terry Shapiro
The synchronicity of this production with the Obama Administration's announcement that it is seeking to curtail the next moon landing in 2020 and spending the money instead on technological support for the space station and space refueling, while the space shuttle Endeavor (a program that is counting down its days) delivers the final piece of the International Space Station, underscores the significance of Martinez' love story on "the final frontier": it's a hopeful one, with visuals of the Wright brother's first flight and a shuttle liftoff as backdrop for Patrick and Elena's denouement on the beach.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's world premiere of Rogelio Martinez' When Tang Met Laika, directed by Terrence J. Nolen, runs through February 27th. 303-893-4100 or

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