As Haley explained in her review, it was initially my interest in the story of the first dog in space and curiosity about the Neo-Futurists that brought us to attend a performance of Laika: Dog in Space. The subject matter sounded appealing, and music and puppets sounded like an interesting medium for the narrative. From the description provided, I was expecting something along the lines of a musical telling of the events of Laika's short life, albeit in an offbeat and somewhat humorous way. What the show turned out to be was not what I expected, although arguably better than I expected.
Before I continue this review, I should make a few facts known about me:
- I am a huge nerd, and I mean that in a positive way.
- I have a seemingly higher tolerance for accordion music than most people.
- I used to perform improv comedy, so being on stage with a small audience isn't a new experience for me.
- Borscht is one of my favorite soups.
The first inkling that something different was afoot was the exhibit space that led into the theater, which we were invited to browse as the stage was set. The large-seeming room was lined with strange artifacts said to have some relation to the show. In some ways, I found this to be the most interesting part of the evening, as I definitely felt primed to "get" more of the references in the show, particularly those dealing with the 1960s-era TV show The Prisoner.
Beyond that, however, I also found that the gallery of famous dogs and the odd science-y gadgets helped set the overall tone and mood of the show. The best illustration of this was when one of the cast members enticed me to try out a Van de Graaf generator set up as one of the displays. Besides the comical sensation of being engulfed by static electricity, I now realize that this was a way of mentally preparing me as an audience member for later involvement in the show's events. Or perhaps to gauge how open I'd be to it later.
Laika: Dog in Space turned out to be not so much about Laika's life, but rather an exploration of what her life meant for the show's creators/performers. It's difficult to draw a thread of continuity through the production, since there isn't really a single theme that ties it all up, but some of the issues that come up are imprisonment, isolation, innocence/childhood, the canine mind, the nature of scientific knowledge, and an absurdist view of the Cold War.
The show is structured into segments, directed by the soothing, offstage voice of an announcer of sorts, a reference to The Prisoner that surely would have left many scratching their heads if not for the aforementioned primer. Segments include rock concert-style musical numbers (which were sometimes sonically problematic), storybook styled retellings of a few key events in the Laika narrative, a cooking sequence where the cast made borscht for the audience, and a space-race themed game show, in which I participated and memorably got Tang up my nose. There were also several monologues and vignettes, which raised interesting ideas but could have done a better job of relating the content to the audience - specifically in answering the question "okay...so what?" In one sense, it's nice not to be told what to think about the themes, but a little more direct relevance wouldn't hurt.
At this point, I should add that I'm usually fairly skeptical of audience participation, which might sound surprising from someone who performed improv. The issue I have with it is that, as an audience member, it can be somewhat alarming to suddenly be handed the responsibility to making a moment of the show work. To be fair, the performers are themselves taking a risk by shifting focus momentarily from themselves to an untested amateur, but that usually does little to put the person in the spotlight at ease. Additional measures are needed to make the experience more comfortable
This is an area where I think the cast of Laika did a fairly admirable job. The exhibit and interaction before we even got into the theater was a subtle way of preparing the audience for interaction later, and when people in the audience were approached, it was often in a way where the spotlight wouldn't immediately be on them. That wasn't always the case, as when I was brought up on stage for trivia and upside-down Tang consumption, but it also helps that the audience was small. When 75% of the people there are asked to do something, you feel less singled out.
Approaching the show purely from an aesthetic level, I found it to be pretty amusing and thought-provoking for the most part, if occasionally a little pretentious. The house band, a four-piece keyboard-accordion/guitar/bass/drums outfit was very talented, and though none of the performers were particularly noteworthy as vocalists, the songs didn't really require such skill.
The musical style seemed heavily influenced by The B-52s, which I thought was a good stylistic choice. That particular sound has a stylistic foundation in the 1950s Cold War era, but it also reminds of the 1980s, which is when the ensemble members (and, presumably, the intended audience) were children, and that childhood experience is a theme that came up more than once, particularly in the "story-time" segments, at the onset of which all of the actors would scream "YAAAAAAY!" and dive for a nearby pillow. The staging made good use of the small space with its science-bordering-on-science-fiction trappings, including video monitors to display interesting little animations during certain segments.
On a conceptual level, Laika covers some good ideas and for the most part presents them in an entertaining way, but that said I can see why the show wouldn't appeal to just anyone. It does ask more of its audience than the average show, and while you get the sense that it's done out of respect for the audience's ability to get the ideas in the show, some might find that to be an imposition. Personally, I didn't mind, and I enjoyed the out-of-the-box way it delved into the subject matter. Plus, the soup at the end was pretty tasty.