One of the hallmarks of theatre — especially intimate theatre — is its creativity. Whereas at the cinema the director can call on a special effects team to make movie magic through a combination of CGI and effects that look good on film; the theatre director can only call on imagination and creativity, because live theatre by definition is live and in front of you. Perhaps this is one reason we don’t see a lot of plays that take place in outer space. Luckily, we saw one of the few that exists last night, and it was excellent and creative and remarkable and funny and … well, almost any superlative you can think of. Unluckily (at least for you), you won’t be able to see it; this write-up will have to suffice. The show that you missed (but we saw) was Entropy, written by Bill Robens (FB), directed by Christopher William Johnson (FB); we saw it at Theatre of Note (FB), an outstanding intimate theatre on Cahuenga in Hollywood.
Now, when I hear the term “Entropy”, what comes to mind is the quality of random numbers — in particular the seeding of a random number generator. But that’s likely just because of who I work with on a daily basis. In a broader sense, entropy is a thermodynamic term that is a measure of the disorder of a system. In particular, according to the second law of thermodynamics the entropy of an isolated system never decreases; such a system will spontaneously proceed towards thermodynamic equilibrium, the configuration with maximum entropy. In other words, isolate a system, and it rapidly descends into chaos. And chaos, my friends, is funny (and if you don’t believe me, ask Maxwell Smart).
In the case of last night’s show, the “entropy” was brought upon by an absurd premise; suspend disbelief on this premise, and set it down in a stereoptypical genre situation appropriate for the premise, and guess what? Instant entropy. What was the premise? Only that the sputnik satellite, after 15 years in space, had become sentient, gone to the Moon, was doing the happy dance, and was about to realize that it was lonely and craving another mechanical intelligence to love. The stereotypical genre situation? NASA in the early 1970s when there was still a strong competition between the US and the Russkies. Now, mix, stir, and laugh.
At this moment, I must digress and comment on the “Playwright’s Notes” in the program, which said “This show is reserved for people smart enough to accept absolute fact, and to celebrate the magnificent achievement of those who risked everything to explore the unknown. And then we make fun of them. Okay, so we’re not perfect. We’re not rocket scientists, but we hope any rocket scientists would appreciate our play and just shut up for a couple hours about our inaccuracies. They can be such snobs.” I must point out that I actually am a rocket scientist (well, a rocket computer scientist), and work with rocket scientists every day at my place of employ. I enjoyed the inaccuracies; entertainment is about suspension of belief. Look at the reaction of seismologists to San Andreas. However, we are not snobs.
Of course, suspending disbelief is easier when it is clear you are not in a realistic situation. Movies go for that realism and immerse you in the story. The stage is all about imagination, and what hits you first about Entropy is the incredible about of imagination that has gone into this production. It is apparent the first time you see the stage. Let me set the scene. On stage left is Mission Control — some fake consoles constructed from all sorts of destroyed keyboards and electronics, with an upper level with a desk and a picture of Richard Nixon, with an open window to the folks doing sound and lights, but dresses as 1970s engineers. On stage right is the space capsule, with handholds everywhere and all sorts of buttons and electronics (again, broken up keyboards). At stage center is a model of the Saturn V. When it is time to launch the ship, out comes the stagehands, dressed in black with black hoods, who manually raise the Saturn and hold a cardboard cutout of fire beneath the engines, and move it around the theatre (including a similar manual separation). You’ve now got a sense of the show.
The plot, as I said, is silly. The US is launching a space mission with the first girl astronaut (or astronette). Yes, I said “girl” — this is the 1970s and this is NASA. The ostensible mission is to test whether toys and parlor games work in space. The real mission is to capture Sputnik and bring it back to a girl robot that the US has built, in order to sway the Russian Sputnik to the side of the US. The real real mission, as developed jointly by NASA head of mission control Chuck Merrick and Russian Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, is to destroy Sputnik. So, when the “Green Drive” developed by NASA Engineer Neil Bradley fails, and the EVA to get to activate the auxiliary power also fails (stranding Astronaut Red Jackson in space), the mission seems doomed. Just then Sputnik knocks at the door of the capsule, and the remaining Astronauts, Samantha McKinley and Scott Derickson, let him in — and discover how to communicate and become friends. But Merrick really wants to destroy Sputnik, so he steals a spacecraft and rendezvous with the Zeus III. He coordinates with Dobrynin, and is about to destroy the Zeus III, Sputnik, and the remaining astronauts with the laser. However, Sputnik is saved when Alexandra Mikhailova destroys Merrick’s capsule instead. The astronauts of Zeus III are saved when Sputnik uses his power to save them, leaving him stranded in space. The secondary comic subplot, because every story has a comic subplot, involves mission control engineers Benny and Joanna Curtis who are undergoing a nasty divorce, partially because Benny has been cheating… with Rebecca, who turns out to be Alexandra undercover.
Now, on top of a wonderfully comic plot and a wonderful set, we have wonderful performances. This is one case where I’ll give extra credit to director Johnson. On the space capsule side, he has the actors, through physicality and handholds, provide a wonderful simulation of weightlessness. He also has actors continuing to act and move in character even when they aren’t the focus of attention. This is a lovely attention to detail, and it keeps the audience busy as they try to capture the action everywhere in the wide-but-narrow Note performance space.
Let’s get to the actors themselves. In the space capsule we have Trevor H. Olsen (Red Jackson), Alina Phelan (FB) (Samantha McKinley), and Nicholas S. Williams (FB) (Scott Derickson). Olsen does a wonderful job of capturing the stereotypical cowboy astronaut, down to the twang, racist commentary, and cowboy hat. Yee haw! Williams, on the other hand, is the hot shot test pilot/engineer trope. Phelan’s trope is the clueless newbie, who has been kept in the dark because she’s a girl in a male chauvinist world. All three capture their characters well, and excel at simulating zero gravity movement. They had a wonderful chemistry together.
In mission control we had David Wilcox (FB) (Chuck Merrick, Head of Mission Control), Travis Moscinski (FB) (Benny Curtis, Mission Control Engineer), Wendi West (FB) (Joanna Curtis, Mission Control Engineer), Justin Okin (FB) (Neil Bradley, Engineer), and Kjai Block/FB (Rusty, the Intern). Wilcox was the gung-ho anti-Communist, and he captured that perfectly. Moscinski and West had the trope of the bickering couple, and were quite fun to watch. Bradley’s trope was the milquetoast engineering (who should have been shot for using designs without testing them) — he played the role for comic effect and was, again, excellent. Lastly was Block as Rusty, who was just a bit more of background comic relief.
Our Russian friends were Brad C. Light (FB) (Anatoly Dobrynin) and Rebecca Light (FB) (Alexandra Mikhailovna). Light, the Mr., captured the trope of the hard drinking Russian emissary well, providing that wonderful sense of evil we no longer have. Light, the Ms., was lovely as the female spy, who once was undercover as the lover of Benny. She was able to exude that aura of evil sexy. Fun fun fun to watch.
Rounding out the cast in smaller roles, as reporters, other unnamed characters, and likely, as stagehands in black and as Sputnik, were: Christopher Neiman (FB) (Reporter); Lynn Odell (FB) (Minnie Jackson); and Arlene Marin (FB) (U/S Reporter). Rounding out the understudies, who again were probably the stagehands in black, were David Bickford (FB) (U/S Dobrynin); Christine Breihan (FB) (U/S Mikhailovna); Gene Michael Barrera (U/S Benny Curtis/Rusty); Stacy Benjamin (FB) (U/S: Joanna Curtis); Dan Wingard (FB) (U/S Neil Bradley); Bill Robens (FB) (U/S Chuck Merrick); Garrett Hanson (FB) (US Soctt); Jo D. Jonz (FB) (U/S Reporter).
Turning to the technical side. The wonderful set was designed by Krystyna Łoboda (FB) (set designer), with graphic design by Gene Michael Barrera , prop design by Richard Werner (FB), and puppet design by Andrew Leman. I’ve described the set before. The props — especially the spacecraft — were wonderful. The puppet design refers to the wonderful Sputnik puppet that was expressive while still being, at its heart, Sputnik. Costume design was by Kimberly Freed (FB), and were fun while being reasonably period. Particularly cute were the spacesuit costumes. Corwin Evans (FB) did the sound design, and I particularly enjoyed both the selection of music tracks, as well as the overall sound effects (particularly the launch sequences). Lastly, the lighting design by Brandon Baruch (FB) did an excellent job of focusing attention. Fight choreography was by Jen Albert (FB). As noted earlier, the production was directed by Christopher William Johnson (FB). It was produced by John Money (FB).
Now is the point where I would normally tell you to go see this show at Theatre of Note (FB). But, alas, for you, last night was the last performance. So I’ll say instead: Go support your local intimate theatre — you’ll be surprised at the great productions you’ll discover.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Upcoming Shows: This evening brings “Waterfall“, the new Maltby/Shire musical at the Pasadena Playhouse (FB). June will be exhausting with the bounty that the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB) brings (ticketing is now open). June starts with a matinee of the movie Grease at The Colony Theatre (FB), followed by Clybourne Park (HFF) at the Lounge Theatre (FB) on Saturday, and a trip out to see the Lancaster Jethawks on Sunday. The second weekend of June brings Max and Elsa. No Music. No Children. (HFF) at Theatre Asylum (FB) and Wombat Man (HFF) at Underground Theatre (FB) on Saturday, and Marry Me a Little (HFF) by Good People Theatre (FB) at the Lillian Theatre (FB) on Sunday. The craziness continues into the third weekend of June, with Nigerian Spam Scam Scam (HFF) at Theatre Asylum (FB) and Merely Players (HFF) at the Lounge Theatre (FB) on Saturday, and Uncle Impossible’s Funtime Variety & Ice Cream Social, (HFF) at the Complex Theatres (FB) on Sunday (and possibly “Matilda” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) in the afternoon, depending on Hottix availability, although July 4th weekend is more likely). The Fringe craziness ends with Medium Size Me, (HFF) at the Complex Theatres (FB) on Thursday 6/25 and Might As Well Live: Stories By Dorothy Parker (HFF) at the Complex Theatres (FB) on Saturday. June ends with our annual drum corps show in Riverside on Sunday. July begins with “Murder for Two” at the Geffen Playhouse (FB) on July 3rd, and possibly Matilda. July 11th brings “Jesus Christ Superstar” at REP East (FB). The following weekend brings “Green Grow The Lilacs” at Theatricum Botanicum (FB). July 25th brings “Lombardi” at the Lonny Chapman Group Rep (FB), with the annual Operaworks show the next day. August starts with “As You Like It” at Theatricum Botanicum (FB), and is followed by the summer Mus-ique show, and “The Fabulous Lipitones” at The Colony Theatre (FB). After that we’ll need a vacation! As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.