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Theatre in Review: Space Dogs (MCC Theater)

Nick Blaemire, Van Hughes. Photo: Daniel J. Vasquez.

Space Dogs illustrates the often-worrying gulf between technical skill and storytelling expertise so often seen these days. Everything on the design and staging side of this oddball offering is accomplished. In Wilson Chin's set design, an enormous bank of Soviet-era loudspeakers provides a screen for Stefania Bulbarella and Alex Basco Koch's galaxy of projections, which include various historical figures, mushroom clouds, snowy landscapes, and, most amusingly, a chorus of Nikita Khrushchevs, singing along with the cast. A couple of onstage green screens allow for impressive live video effects. Mary Ellen Stebbins' lighting offers a barrage of chases, ballyhoos, and blinder cues. And because this is a story about canine triumph and tragedy, props and puppet designer Amanda Villalobos has crafted an extensive pack of pooches ready to perform an array of tricks.

Despite all this and an ingratiating two-person cast, Space Dogs nevertheless suffers from a failure to launch. Van Hughes and Nick Blaemire, the playwrights and stars, are committed to telling the story of Laika, the Soviet mutt who was the first to orbit the earth, thus kicking off the Space Race between the US and the USSR. It is, admittedly quite a slice of history but, as presented here, the tale gets lost in various narrative byways. And as subject matter for a fanciful musical it is, at best, questionable.

The opening number is not a confidence-builder, relying as it does on repeated iterations of the line "The space dogs of the Cosmodrome!" It also offers a kind of mission statement, when Hughes and Blaemire add, "We needed them to scout the stars! And they're why we're playing our guitars!" And this, I suppose, was inevitable: "They were saints! They're space dogs -- And they ain't nobody's bitch!" But it doesn't make it any less regrettable. (Most of the songs offer passable rock hooks, but they tend to grind to a halt, abruptly.)

And you can't say that Hughes and Blaemire aren't upfront about their intentions. "We just think the whole thing's fascinating. A story of political intrigue, science non-fiction, best friendship, and heartbreak. And we thought you might think so too," Hughes says. "But -- you don't have to think so as much as us," Blaemire adds. And a good thing, too, because not everyone will be mesmerized by this tale of Stalinist infighting, Cold War intrigue, and national rivalry, served up with adorable plush toys.

So deep is their love that the authors clearly felt unable to cut anything: We get a potted history of the USSR's commitment to space, beginning with Stalin's Great Purge in 1940; the lowdown on Wernher von Braun, Nazi scientist and father of US rocketry; and the role of Lyndon Johnson in getting von Braun hired for the American effort. And there's the history of the man known only as the "chief designer," who rises from a Siberian labor camp to head of the Soviet space program. Juxtaposed with these are scenes of Laika, the dog, confiding his thoughts and feelings to his diary ("We did get some well-cooked sausage to eat") and his interactions with Little Gnat, the most jaded member of the Soviet dog pack. The latter, sporting a fur hat and sunglasses and waving a cigarette, notes, in a nicotine rasp, that the all-female space dogs make up a "real healthy lesbian community."

This shotgun wedding of brutal historical facts with cute puppets and musical numbers titled "Fuzziest Loneliest" and "Russian Canine Beauty Pageant" produces an entertainment of limited charm. If Space Dogs were ever to work, it would probably have to rely more on the growing bond between the Chief Designer and Laika, but that would mean giving both characters stronger personalities. It would also mean clearing away some of the narrative underbrush.

Hughes and Blaemire, who have been seen to better advantage elsewhere, give it their all and director Ellie Heyman deploys every trick at the command of the creative team. The latter includes Haydee Zelideth Antuñano (costumes) and Nathan Leigh (sound), both of whom make solid contributions. Left unanswered, however, is the question of why Space Dogs exists and why it needs musical numbers at all. This will perhaps be best by enjoyed by History Channel obsessives with a taste for the whimsical. A lot of technical expertise is expended on an awfully frail concept. --David Barbour

(14 February 2022)

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