Two of my main beats—aviation/space and theatre—overlapped last week when I attended a reading of Ad Astra, a new play by James Wallert about the life of pioneering rocket scientist—and Nazi—Wernher von Braun. I wrote a post about that for Air & Space/Smithsonian, but at my editor’s suggestion we removed a paragraph where I named the four actors who performed the reading. That was the right call for Air & Space’s audience; after all, when Ad Astra gets fully staged it will likely be with a different cast. Still, the cast—all members of New York’s Epic Theatre Ensemble, which Wallert co-founded—was terrific, so I’d like to name them here.
Sanjit De Silva read the part of von Braun, while Devin E. Haqq showed off a gift for mimicry as Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson and in several other small but high-profile roles, including President John F. Kennedy, SS leader Heinrich Himmler, and Walt Disney. Melissa Friedman and Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr. appeared as, respectively, von Braun’s Parisian lover Margot and his Army Intelligence handler, Major William Taggert.
I believe both characters are fictional, though I’m not entirely certain of the latter, Taggert, who also appears in the 1960 von Braun biopic I Aim at the Stars: The Wernher von Braun Story, the production of which is covered in Ad Astra. (In the film, von Braun was played by Curd Jürgens, best known to me as the evil Karl Stromberg from 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me—the high point of Roger Moore’s tenure as 007, which did not have many high points.)
But I digress. That Taggert goes unnamed in National Air and Space Museum curator Michael J. Neufeld’s book Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War and that his career as depicted in I Aim at the Stars follows so unlikely a trajectory, from high-ranking military intelligence officer to journalist, makes me he think he’s probably a writer’s invention. (Neufeld attended the reading of Ad Astra and took part in a panel discussion of the play afterward, but I didn’t think to ask him.) Not everyone approves of playwrights or screenwriters creating characters as a method of exploring a dilemma inherent in their primary subject’s personality, as at least one member of the Ad Astra panel made clear. Anyway, I’m looking forward to seeing a fully staged Ad Astra in the not-too-distant future.