Ground Control to Major Tom: David Bowie, Richard Nixon, the Cold War, the women's liberation movement, early Steven Spielberg movies and a staff-impaired NASA space program from 1973 all combine into a Mel Brooks aesthetic in Bill Robens' world-premiere farce Entropy, which just opened at Hollywood's Theatre of NOTE.
Regular NOTE patrons already know that the venue is only slightly larger than a walk-in closet, which makes Christopher William Johnson's direction of 13 fine actors, gleefully overplaying their lunatic roles, all the more impressive.
The highlight of the show is unquestionably the production design: Krystyna Loboda's set places the audience on padded bleachers, as though in a Disney ride looking down on the interior of an almost authentic NASA space capsule floating on one side of the stage, and Houston's control center on the other. The stage's midsection is often dedicated to black-clad (invisible) kabuki-style set movers, who hold and move a model Apollo-like rocket ship with cardboard flames emerging from its thruster engines, in order to convey what the three astronauts (Trevor H. Olsen, Alina Phelan and Nicholas S. Williams) might be feeling — gravitationally speaking — at any given time. The actors' body-language depiction of hanging around in zero gravity (legs flailing as they hang onto wall braces) is particularly inspired, as is the theatrical coup of showing a chess game where the pieces become lodged on the wall. Kimberly Freed's wonderfully authentic costumes for the astronauts, and their attendant support staff in Houston, are straight out of Mad Magazine.
The plot? Oh God, is it even worth describing? Let's just say that NASA spokesman/astronaut Chuck Merrick (David Wilcox, with crew-cut hairdo and nostrils perpetually flaring) has anger-management problems along with other psychological issues regarding the Soviet Union in general, and with its Sputnik satellite in particular. The latter arrives here in puppet form as a childlike E.T., whom Merrick is determined to destroy, though the Russian satellite-turned-robot-with-feelings wins the heart of astronaut Samantha McKinley (the endearing Phelan).
Perhaps the biggest question for the audience is whether Wilcox will actually, physically explode onstage, from his rage at his obviously inept support staff — which includes inventor Neil Bradley (Justin Okin), determined to power the spacecraft from the organic power of ferns and potatoes.
Wilcox meets his match, temperamentally, in Russian ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin (Brad C. Light), who has a temper derived from cartoon images of Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev. Stir in a double agent (Rebecca Light), and her entanglement in the estranged marriage between two Houston controllers (played by Wendi West and Travis Moscinski), and you're left with an inventive, low-tech parody of a vintage soap opera.
There's the hint that we're all lost in space, and Entropy gathers the antecedent myths of our collective existential ennui and takes them for a ride. The emphasis of this production, however, is on the silly jokes, which are sort of lovely but do wear thin, as do most Mel Brooks flicks. What if all these amazing creative resources on display were invested in a project slightly more soulful? Does nostalgic campiness need 2½ hours of stage time?
This project deserves another go-round. The outcome of something ultimately more meditative could be transcendent, without losing this production's core lunacy. It might even fly because of it.
Ron Klier's new play at Vs. Theatre Company, Gus's Fashion & Shoes, is the second in a St. Louis–based trilogy about police/minority relations, Cops & Friends of Cops being the first in 2013. The third is yet to come.
Another amazing set (production design by Danny Cistone) takes us into the 1990 basement of a St. Louis fashion store (specializing in sneakers). Rows of shelves piled with shoeboxes form the claustrophobic backdrop to the drama of owner Gus (Robert Maffia, in a rousing, Al Pacino–esque performance) trying to protect his ne'er-do-well rapper son Matty (Sam Boeck) from a murder charge, and to stick the crime on his black best friend De'Ron (Amir Abdullah). Among Gus' friends is a detective (Jeffrey Johnson) out to protect Gus for reasons having to do with past police corruption. So the play, with all its race-baiting, is like a poignant, vintage snapshot prophesying all the police abuses that have emerged via cellphone images in the past decade.
There's also a clerk (Pancho Moler) who's like Gus' adopted son, so the adoption/father-and-son issues at the play's core turn it into a kind of compendium of David Mamet's American Buffalo and Lyle Kessler's Orphans. It is, however, staged with an electric charge by the author, who benefits from his soul-stirring ensemble.
GO! Entropy, Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hlywd.; through May 30. (323) 856-8611, theatreofnote.com.
GO! Gus's Fashion & Shoes, Vs. Theatre Company, 5453 Pico Blvd., Mid-Wilshire; through May 30. (323) 739-4411, vstheatre.org
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Correction: An earlier version of this article mislabeled the Gus's Fashion & Shoes photo, saying it depicted Entropy instead. It also included the wrong spelling of Pancho Moler and wrong names of the actors who play the controllers. We regret the errors.
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