It never ceases to amaze me, the circuitous routes we take to the unusual places we end up in life. Tonight, for instance, found me partaking in perhaps one of the strangest theatrical experiences I've ever had, all due to a conversation I had with Justin several weeks ago.
You see, Justin likes to read to me. We've entered into a phase in our relationship where we don't need to be paying constant attention to one another, and enjoy simply coexisting in the same space while engaged in separate tasks. Often, I'll be perusing a cookbook or magazine, tidying up, or cooking something, and Justin (being the naturally curious and inquisitive sort) will be browsing Reddit or researching a random thought he's had. If he stumbles across something interesting, he'll usually read it aloud to me. On this particular occasion, I was putzing around in the kitchen, while Justin read to me about Laika, the first dog sent into space by the Soviets in Sputnik II. Like the majority of such tangential conversations, it would have passed silently into oblivion if it hadn't been for a copy of Time Out Chicago that I paged through while on my lunch hour at work later that week, where I spotted a theater listing for a play entitled, Laika: Dog In Space. Now aware of Justin's interest in Laika's story, I suggested to him that we go see it, and we dutifully made plans.
Knowing that the play had been written and produced by the Neo-Futurists, an experimental theater troupe operating out of Chicago and New York, I was prepared for the show to be a little... offbeat. The descriptions I found online painted the play as a combination of "original music, dance, and puppetry," which I thought held some promise. After all, how bad could a cute dog puppet be? Plus, tickets were only $15, so the risks seemed minimal, even if it was awful.
Awful would be a strong word to describe what unfolded at the Neo-Futurarium this evening; bizarre, absurd, pretentious, and just plain weird are all more apt descriptors in my opinion. The experience began with a pre-show installation of dioramas, writing exercises, a short film, scientific instruments, and handouts about such seemingly unrelated topics as the 1960s era British television show, The Prisoner. It was a good thing we got there early enough to look at everything before the show, because it turned out that the "installation" was full of the information necessary to understand the references being made within the play, which drew parallels between Laika's life and such disparate sources as The Prisoner, and the children's book, The Little Prince. It seems to me that if you have to do that much educating before the show so that your audience can have an inkling of what's going on, you might be reaching a little far in your material. Indeed, Laika: Dog in Space was more a meditation on isolation, science, the connections between people, community, courage, and imagination than it was a story about Laika. The real Laika, it seemed, was little more than a creative jumping-off point for the writers.
The show itself was somewhat of a post-modern pastiche, creating a collage of different elements to explore its themes, some of which were more successful than others. I enjoyed the original rock songs, the use of puppetry, and the "Story Time" segments that actually talked about Laika against a background of animated video components. Then there was the cooking segment, in which the actors prepared a beaker of borscht, and served it to the audience at the end of the show as a way of provoking discussion among strangers over a shared meal. I don't eat beets, but it was an interesting way of approaching the idea of communities and creating relationships that overcome our personal isolation. I think that might be the most positive comment I have to make about Laika -- it was often interesting, but not necessarily enjoyable.
I particularly did not enjoy the long, rambling monologues about the actors' personal thoughts on Laika, their embarrassingly awkward interpretive dances, and the pervasive attempts at audience participation. Not unlike high school, I spent most of the evening hoping no one would call on me or single me out in front of the audience. Justin was not as fortunate, as he was pulled on stage to participate in a Space Race trivia game that involved being spun around in a desk chair, wearing symbolic headgear representing the different nations who participated in the Space Race, answering difficult questions, and ultimately, being asked to drink a glass of Tang upside down. Even after all that, Justin still enjoyed the show more than me, which is a sign that he's either a better sport than I am, more open-minded, or he just understood what they were getting at more than I did.
I didn't really like or dislike Laika -- instead, I thought it had both positive and negative moments that virtually balanced each other out. It's a difficult production for me to describe, because I'm not sure I understood it well enough to do so. It leaves the intellectual heavy-lifting up to the audience by suggesting themes to consider, but without doing much delving into those themes. I will say this: Laika left me thinking, which is at least a partial success for any piece of art. I'm just not sure what to think...