“Pasadena Babalon” lives in the in-between space of things we know and don’t know about John Whiteside Parsons.
Jack, they called him; He, the young genius of a nascent aerospace industry as it emerged in Southern California, of the founding of Aerojet Corp. and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and of the darkest pursuits of occult ritual and magic.
The Theater Arts at the California Institute of Technology takes on all these sides of Parsons in its new production, covering a broad swath of territory from his childhood to his death in 1952.
The play’s dramaturge Karen Jean Martinson notes in the program’s exposition: “The play leans away from verity as time is compressed, complexities are smoothed over, and conflicts are enhanced for dramatic effect.”
Some of the characters, most notably a pair the audience takes to believe are FBI interrogators, are fictional. We invest in them for their storytelling functions: propelling forward the plot and establishing signposts to which we mentally return later for light-bulb moments of revelation.
On opening night, director Brian Brophy introduces the material as “contested territory.” And it is, if only because we may never know the true mind of Jack Parsons, let alone his conversations and most intimate relationships. But envisioning them sure makes for a compelling stage subject. And, as Brophy tells the audience, the story is ultimately one about Parsons’ environs: Pasadena.
The George Morgan script is rife with inside winks to the Pasadena community, and to its community-within-a-community, Caltech. (Morgan’s previous play, “Rocket Girl,” also premiered at Caltech and is based on the life of his mother, Mary Sherman Morgan, America’s first female rocket scientist.)
Parsons was not a formally educated scientist — he didn’t even have a degree.
Writes Cecilia Rasmussen in a 2000 story in the L.A. Times: “(He) was at USC when word of Caltech graduate student Frank Malina’s project on rocket propulsion and high-altitude rockets reached him and (his childhood friend Ed) Forman. The young duo brazenly offered to help. … Theodore von Karman, the director of Caltech’s Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory and one of the world’s leading scientists, took them up on their offer.”
Their experimentation in the dry creek bed of the Arroyo Seco began famously on Halloween night in 1936. Parsons and Forman were among a team of seven men to fire a test rocket there, at a site not far from the present-day JPL.
From a 2006 Star-News story: “That first test more closely resembled a Keystone Kops episode than today’s sophisticated launches, but it paved the way for space exploration.”
On the stage, as he was known to do in real life, we see Parsons before each rocket test invoking the Greek god Pan: “Strong as a lion and sharp as an asp — Come, O come! / I am numb / With the lonely lust of devildom.”
The invokation is a hymn penned by Aleister Crowley — infamous British occultist, founder of the religion Thelema and leader of the Ordo Templi Orientis — who’s just one among a wild band of characters to orbit around Parsons and become visitors or tenants of his mansion at 1003 Orange Grove Boulevard.
So where did Parsons manage to find such a crazy assortment of people (including future Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard) with whom to consort?
“I put an ad in the Pasadena Star-News,” is the dead-pan response delivered by actor Thomas Wilson Brown, as Parsons, to raucous laughter in the theater. Only bohemians, anarchists, alchemists and artists need apply.
The house, known as The Parsonage, becomes a hub of activity for the OTO and black magic rituals involving sex and drugs — all of this taking place amid the moneyed society of Millionaires’ Row.
In the lead role, Brown tackles an infinitely difficult, Byronic hero of a character. And yet, for all his maddening duality, the character is approachable, even likable. Through his most shallow, womanizing moments and his ever-consuming obsession with bizarre rituals, we relate to Parsons and want him to succeed.
When he dies in an explosion of his own making, rocking the Parsonage and surrounding neighborhoods, there is a realization of loss. But Parsons — the brilliant, rogue rocketeer — is already diminished, lost in a world of incantations and impossible magic.
Parsons, both scientist and occultist — someone with both great influence and great susceptibility to the influence and tricks of others — reportedly saw no need to reconcile the two sides of his nature. Certainly not the first or last human being to simultaneously hold opposing viewpoints, Parsons does provide a case of sharpest contrast. (Yet, another question lingers, that maybe the two sides really aren’t so different after all.)
The director’s tasteful use of a multimedia backdrop, including real historical images and footage of Parsons, et al. is a reminder from time to time that the scene before us is more than loosely based on a true story.
“Babalon” doesn’t thoroughly address the “whys” of Jack Parsons, except for very brief forays into his early family life, and that’s OK. We meet him as the writer intends us to; The psychological profile is constructed from there.
An early scene envisions a young Parsons — playing with his best mate, the young Ed Forman — seeking answers from the beyond on a Ouija board. “Will we fly on a rocket ship to the moon?” From there on out, it’s simply a wild ride to the dark side.
Admission, $18. Friday, Feb. 26, and Saturday, Feb. 27, 8 p.m. in Ramo Auditorium. Ticket office, 332 S. Michigan Avenue. 626-395-4652, events.caltech.edu
(Photos courtesy Cindy De Mesa / Caltech)