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Review: 'The Woman Who Went Into Space as a Man' shares the true story of cyber-punk author with a big secret

Review: 'The Woman Who Went Into Space as a Man' shares the true story of cyber-punk author with a big secret
Ashley Steed, left, Paula Rebelo and Betsy Moore in "The Woman Who Went to Space as a Man." (Son of Semele Ensemble)

Writer-director Maureen Huskey leaves no genre unexploited in her experimental new play, “The Woman Who Went to Space as a Man” at Son of Semele Theater.

Huskey’s mind-bendingly complex mélange leaves one grasping for descriptors that could give potential theatergoers some notion of what they are in for.

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On the surface, the play charts the life of Alice B. Sheldon, best known as science fiction writer James Tiptree, Jr., whose testosterone-infused “cyber-punk” stories broke new ground in the form. Although she corresponded prolifically with fellow sci-fi writers and fans, Sheldon kept her identity – and her gender — a carefully guarded secret. Tiptree’s works were so hyper-masculine in tone that the revelation of her sex sent shock waves throughout the sci-fi community, sparking passionate debates among followers and fans regarding the role of gender in literature.

The action opens as Sheldon, surrounded by her fictional characters, contemplates suicide. From the first scene onward, it’s evident that Sheldon’s life was as unlikely as her stories, and Huskey swiftly captures the sweep of her subject, from her childhood spent junketing to Africa with her travel-writer mother, to her years in the military, to her dalliances with women and men alike. An enigma who came to writing late in life, Sheldon was only “lit up” by women yet had a long and loving marriage to a man who, as both went into sad decline, ended in a murder/suicide — a tragedy oddly elided in this piece.

The play, which features appropriately unearthly original music by Yuval Ron, vaults between bio-drama and the pulp stories of which Sheldon was so fond, with a hint or two of Weimar cabaret thrown in for good measure.

A web-like structure overhead, part of Eli Smith’s rudimentary set design, is twanged and manipulated by the cast to vaguely metaphoric effect. Martín Carillo’s sound and Rose Malone’s lighting, both splendid, are integral to the shifting moods, while Lena Sands’ costumes, of which there are many, range from the serviceable to the distractingly glitzy.

Sheldon is played by three different actors — Isabella Ramacciotti as the child Alice, Paula Rebelo as Alice in young adulthood, and Betsy Moore as the older Alice, whose intense collaboration with her male alter-ego Tiptree (James Ferrero) brings her belated fame.

Under Huskey’s guidance and Richard An’s musical direction, the entire cast functions as a seamless ensemble, from realistic emotional interchanges to precisely mechanized group choreography, sort of Grotowski movement exercises by way of the Rockettes. And although the pulp elements of the piece sometimes run away with the narrative, this nearly indescribable fusion of text, music, movement and fantasy takes us inside the mind of a fascinating woman, whose refusal to be hampered by the conventions of her times led her through uncharted territory and new frontiers.

“The Woman Who Went to Space as a Man,” Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. 7 p.m. Tuesdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 5 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 18. $25. (818) 841-5422. www.sonofsemele.org. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.

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