Laika Dog In Space
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 1, 2009
Laika Dog in Space, the NY Neo Futurists' new show at the Ontological-Hysteric Incubator, is everything theatre ought to be. It's completely engaging; it's funny and entertaining; it's smart without being ponderous and it's stylishly high-tech without being annoying about it or forgetting that live theatre is about live people. It's a show that sets out to immerse audiences in a fun though unfamiliar world for a couple of hours and succeeds in doing so. Rob Neill, one of the creator/performers of the piece, told me while we were chatting on stage before the show began (I'll explain in a minute) that the show's vision is to build community among artists and audience, a lofty-sounding goal shared by many in the indie sector. This show actually makes good on the idea—really more effectively than I've ever seen it done.
When you arrive at the show, you're invited to hang out on stage for a while. The set is also an installation, containing various very cool stations that provide an environment for what follows and, if you take the time to observe/play with them, useful background about what's to come. There are photos of famous dogs with brief accompanying histories. There are listening stations where you can learn Russian or hear music from the old TV series The Prisoner. You can send a Laika Dog in Space postcard to a friend. You can watch Neill and his co-stars, Eevin Hartsough and Jill Beckman, prepare a batch of borscht which they will serve at the end of the show.
Laika, I should mention by now, was the first dog in space. She was sent into space by the Russians as part of their preparations for their epoch-making Sputnik voyage back in the 1950s; the story of Laika is told, briefly, here. Laika Dog in Space is a contemplation and celebration of Laika and a meditation on what her life and career meant. That might sound grave and pretentious, and indeed the Neos are completely serious and in earnest about what they're investigating in this show. But they manage the neat trick here of finding what's profound and valuable in Laika's tale without taking themselves (or anything) completely seriously.
The show they've crafted riffs on/takes in science, fairy tales, The Prisoner, rock music, Soviet history, space travel, politics, and philosophy. There are moments that are sheer joy, like a punk elegy to Laika performed by the three actors on stage with important assists from the four-person band situated just above them in the mezzanine (the music director/composer/keyboardist is Carl Riehl; his bandmates are Gene Caprioglio, Devlin Goldberg, and Scot Selig). And there are moments when you need a second for introspection, to process something you didn't see coming: for me, one of these came during a "storytime" when the political motivations behind space travel became chillingly clear.
Most important there are moments throughout of connection. There's a little old-fashioned interactivity built into the show: there's a sing along, and there's a section in which two brave audience members are brought on stage to compete in a little game. But mostly there's the constant experience of being there, with the artists, going through the two dozen or so brief segments that comprise this show and realizing that you've been unexpectedly affected by it all. When it's over, the borscht really is served up, and at the performance I attended, people really did go on stage and partake. The show was over, but the conversation wasn't.
Neill, Hartsough, and Beckman all do masterful work as writers and performers. Director Dave Dalton has helped them make everything they do seem utterly spontaneous, even though it's clear that the show is a finely tuned, well-oiled machine, planned to the microsecond. Riehl's music is terrific. The physical production—costumes and props by Meg Bashwiner, set by Lauren Parish, and choreography by Lauren Sharpe—fits the piece perfectly. "Calm Voice & Sound Operator" Kara Ayn Napolitano is an invaluable presence as a sort of offstage "moderator," giving the show a shape that will be familiar to fans of the Neos.
I was in the audience the very first night of Laika Dog in Space, and I do have one suggestion: the borscht needed more salt (maybe more beets, too). Everything else felt just as it should, and I left feeling very nourished.This one's a must-see for those who like their theatre immersive and adventurous.