Perhaps the love triangle is common in fictional tales because so many people can relate to it — no matter what your level of education, social standing or career path. At one time or another, any one of us might be the rejected, the rejecter or the new love caught in the middle.
Astronaut Lisa Nowak became one of America’s most notorious jilted lovers of one such triangle in 2007. She was charged with attempted kidnapping and later attempted murder after driving more than 900 miles and confronting her romantic rival Colleen Shipman, a fellow female astronaut, at an Orlando airport. After that confrontation led to Nowak’s arrest, police found items in her possession suggesting that she might have had nefarious plans in mind for Shipman, but the most severe of the charges against Nowak never stuck.
Inspired by Nowak’s police interview transcripts, writer/director Joseph Tepperman and composer David Dominique sought to understand the common human elements in this story as they created their new play, Starcrosser’s Cut, premiering Thursday at Son of Semele Theater.
Tepperman and Dominique first met as musicians, both playing trombone with the Los Angeles band Bodies of Water, which utilizes instrumental sections with sometimes unconventionally large numbers. In 2010, Tepperman’s libretto for the opera Tongues Bloody Tongues (a collaboration with the “mobile attack band” Killsonic) was matched with Dominique’s music for a workshop performance at REDCAT’s NOW Festival. Victoria Looseleaf of the LA Times stated at the time that the opera in progress successfully “…soars on wings of absurdity.”
After working together on Tongues, Tepperman and Dominique knew that they wanted to pursue another project together. Tepperman read the released Nowak interview transcripts and was drawn to further understand her motivations, as well as the larger implications of a highly educated and ambitious woman committing a seemingly senseless crime of passion that would ultimately destroy her professional life.
In Starcrosser’s Cut, a character called “Lisa” attempts to understand and navigate recordings of her own words with detective “Camuso” as witness and interrogator. Exploring American aspects of career ambition (particularly in the high-pressure world of the NASA program) juxtaposed with simple human frailty, Tepperman and Dominique hope the story will resonate with themes beyond the sensational headlines that Nowak provoked.
“[The play] is not overly sympathetic…in fact, it’s highly fictionalized,” says Dominique. “In some ways it’s really a projection of how [Nowak] would like the detective to see it…a meditation on how any one of us might be in this situation.”
“And it’s not trying to whitewash the feelings of the intended victim,” adds Tepperman. “It really is that any one of us is capable of something like this.”
Starcrosser’s is not opera. There is no sung text. But its creators are connected to the importance of sound, both music and language, in the execution of the story. Dominique’s score is performed live by four musicians in the intimate Son of Semele space, using musical themes and variations to support the play’s two actors, Shawn Lockie and Tom Colitt.
“The music is subordinated in a way,” says Dominique. “You can almost think of the music alongside the two characters…the music is like another character.”
The musical theme and variation concept is also reflected in the characters’ dialogue through the repetition of ideas and perspectives. In dramatizing the Nowak transcripts for the stage, Tepperman drew on his own long-held interest in the art of cassette tape recordings. His past solo pieces have utilized cassette tapes and recorders in performance, exploring the manipulation of this tactile form of recording as opposed to the less cumbersome, slick technology of digital devices.
Adding the influence of Samuel Beckett’s 1958 one act, Krapp’s Last Tape, Tepperman describes how the manipulation of language through a recorded form can suggest the erasure of history itself as the spoken past is transformed right in front of an audience. Manipulation of this kind seemed to occur when even Lisa Nowak, inside the interrogation room in 2007, could not be convinced of some of the charges against her. She simply did not understand it or refused to believe it.
But Tepperman and Dominique wanted their depiction of the Nowak case to be couched in compassion for the human condition, rather than a paparazzi delight in its running off the rails.
“The tabloid side is avoided,” says Dominique. “The sensational side is almost inherent in presenting it at all. But if [our production] has a position in any way, it comes from a position of compassion.”
As a duo, Tepperman and Dominique might consider themselves musicians more than theater artists at this point in their careers, but the fruition of this project already has them thinking ahead to more theatrical work created specifically for the stage. Tepperman feels that this first foray into full-blown theater gave him a new appreciation for clarity in his storytelling, which grew while the script progressed as an adaptation of the police transcripts.
The team also believes that working in the intimate Son of Semele space has not only served the process, but also the final product. As musicians and performers, both have experienced much larger venues with bigger audiences. But Son of Semele creates what Dominique describes as “an economical space” in which to create “an epic narrative,” something that Tepperman has seen in other performances by the Son of Semele ensemble.
The Nowak case ultimately ended with her plea deal to lesser charges and her eventual dismissal — along with the third party of the triangle, astronaut William Oefelein — from NASA’s space program. It was the first dismissal of its kind in NASA history and led to the creation of the agency’s current code of conduct. Oefelein and Shipman are now married; the record of Nowak’s criminal proceedings has been officially sealed by the court. The truth of what really happened among the three may never be known.
“What we’re really doing is showing different ways that Lisa Nowak could have gone,” says Tepperman. “She could have died in space at some point…but also, if an ordinary person had committed a crime like this, would she have been treated differently?”
Starcrosser’s Cut, presented by Hanistarot in association with Son of Semele. Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Boulevard, LA. 90004. Opens Thursday. Thu 8 pm, Sat 8 pm, Sun 4 pm. Through June 16. Tickets: $12-$18. www.starcrosserscut.com.