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Mesa Encore Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's review of American Psycho

Billy Brandes and Jack Pauly
Photo by Justin McBride / Social Profit Media
There have been dozens of films that focus on space exploration, but I believe Ken Jones' Darkside is one of the few plays that tackles the same subject. Mesa Encore Theatre's Black Box theatre provides an intimate space for this compelling drama that offers an in-depth look into the range of emotions, mounting tensions, and outright terror experienced, both on the ground and on the moon, by a trio of astronauts.

Set in 1973, the story focuses on the three astronauts of the fictitious Apollo 18 and their mission to the moon. The plot begins when the lunar module Yorktown is ready to launch back into orbit from the surface of the moon to rendezvous with the command module Independence but their rockets fail to ignite, stranding Edward Stone and Gerald "Gunner" Smith. Above them, William "Bill" Griffin orbits the moon in the Independence but finds himself cut off from all communication, both to his two team members and with Earth, when he is on the darkside of the moon. During those moments of isolation, Griffin flashes back to events that happened on Earth that deal with the astronauts' families and their pre-launch training. While NASA attempts to troubleshoot the problem from Earth, tension mounts, confusion sets in, and the crew begins to panic once their oxygen starts to run out.

Jones uses dialogue infused with prose, poetry and passion to depict man's fascination with space travel and our desire in exploring the unknown. His scenes that are set in the two spacecraft are ripe with drama and fraught with mounting terror. While the scenes set on the ground help to break the tension and flesh out the characters, they don't really provide much detail beyond stereotypical soap opera scenes that deal with marital issues, infidelity, journalists with their own pre-set agenda, and the fear of being in a metal spacecraft far away from home. However, Jones does manage to capture not only the growing tension the men face but also the feelings of being trapped on the surface of the moon and the deep sense of loneliness and guilt that Griffin feels as he helplessly orbits above and around his stranded friends.

Under George Canady's perceptive direction, Mesa Encore Theatre's production uses a few small set pieces designed by George Peterson-Karlan, Stacey Walston's discerning lighting, and an effective sound design by David Shelton and Van Rockwell to simply, yet effectively, allow our imaginations to create the interiors of the two spacecraft as well as the surface of the moon. Alexa Duke uses NASA patches on the men's jumpsuits and some 1970s outfits for the women to set us squarely in the period of the piece.

The cast are all very good, especially the three actors who deliver gripping portrayals of the astronauts. Billy Brandes is exceptional as William "Bill" Griffin, a man who constantly worries about being alone if something happens to the other two and is also tired of being perceived as being in a safer position since he never has to leave his module. Brandes is superb in depicting the many layers of this complicated man and it's easy to believe the pain, guilt, and intense loneliness Griffin feels through Brandes' excellent portrayal.

Jack Pauly and Michael Gerardi are equally as good as Edward Stone and Gerald "Gunner" Smith, respectively. Pauly does a great job of showing the cracks in Stone's calm demeanor and is very realistic in showing how Stone begins to have panic attacks and hyperventilates, which threatens the success of the mission. Gerardi is very good in showing how Gunner is the calm controlling presence of the three men. His delivery of Gunner's monologue about the mission is incredibly moving. Under Canady's excellent direction, the audience can truly feel the fear of all three characters as their outcome looks bleak.

In supporting parts, Melissa Vo and Portia Beacham do well in somewhat underwritten parts as Ed and Bill's neglected wives, the flirty and often drunk Gigi and the neglected Beth, respectively, and Christal Roundtree is spot on as a pushy reporter who spins the answers she gets to serve her own purpose. As the voice of CAPCOM, Drew Houghton provides a calm, consistent and professional voice throughout as he delivers updated data, facts and reassurance from the NASA base in Houston.

With a very gifted cast and astute direction, Mesa Encore Theatre's production of Darkside is a moving and often nerve-wracking theatrical experience that depicts the sheer beauty and also the possible outright terror that comes with space travel.

Darkside runs through November 24, 2019, at Mesa Encore Theatre, 933 East Main Street, Mesa AZ. For tickets and information, call 480-644-6500 or visit

Director: George Canady
Stage Manager: Brenda Martinez
Set Design: George Peterson-Karlan
Costume Design: Alexa Duke
Sound Design: David Shelton & Van Rockwell
Props Design: Justin McBride & Aristotle Rulloda
Lighting Designer: Stacey Walston

William "Bill" Griffin: Billy Brandes
Edward Stone: Jack Pauly
Gerald "Gunner" Smith: Michael Gerardi
Gigi Stone: Melissa Vo
Beth Griffin: Portia Beacham
The Reporter: Christal Roundtree
CAPCOM: Drew Houghton