produced by No Tea Productions, featuring Matthew Wise, Alicia Barnatchez, Jared Warner, Jeremy Mather, and Jeff Sproul. Kraine Theatre, New York
I don’t like pulp in my orange juice. If I wanted pulp, I would eat an orange. In my sf? Yeah, I like a little pulpy goodness, and if there’s a hint of really smart silliness, well, all the better. This was exactly what I got with No Tea Productions’s Space Captain, Captain of Space at New York’s Kraine Theatre this August. An homage to pulp science fiction, early sf movie serials, and a touch of B movies, the production involved a blend of pre-recorded film, live action, and puppets. No Tea Productions created a fun, clever, innovative parody emerging from the genetic goo of old school Flash Gordon, Duck Dodgers, and Fraiser.
Thrills! Adventure! Romance! Psychological maladjustment!
Walking into the Kraine, the audience was met with a large movie screen and a bare stage with three large, rotating panels set in the back wall to serve as other entrance points. As the lights went down, a film came up in the classic style of a black-and-white movie serial. The cast list was followed by the written exposition for this chapter of the drama which scrolled to a vanishing point mid-screen.
The evil King Xayno (Jeff Sproul, also the playwright) of the Planet Argor is using his Gravity-Ray to crash the Moon into Earth! The president of the United States of Earth (Sean Williams) is sending his best pilot, Rocky Lazer (Matthew Wise), in the X-1 Rocketship to save the helpless planet, for he is “the world’s greatest pilot, athlete, marksman, sword-fighter, wrestler, crooner, and beast-tamer. Plus he’s great with kids.” Also on the mission are Chip Skipper (Jeremy Mather, who also did the video design and production), his trusty sidekick and right-hand man; Dr. Horst Karlock (Jared Warner), the brilliant but annoying scientist who invented the X-1; and the lovely Jean Jarvis (Alicia Barnatchez), the president’s daughter and Earth’s first woman professor (of what, she can’t remember) and whose tendency to faint is turned into a running joke.
The story then moves from the screen to a puppet scene downstage enacting the battle above Argor between Xayno’s Death Saucers and the X-1. The very simple models of the spaceship and saucers synced their movements to the soundtrack (which played throughout the performance and evoked the style of a late 1930s serial). When the guns fired, the puppeteers used red pellets on thin rods to represent the laser fire, and when the explosion occurred in the soundtrack, a little cartoon puff of smoke (also on a thin rod) would come up in front of the destroyed saucer.
After a harrowing space battle with Xayno’s Death Saucers, the X-1 crash lands on Argor, where Rocky and the crew fend off the terrifying beast of Argor. Unfortunately, Chip Skipper is killed, but our brave crew continues their mission. Before they can find the ray they are captured by Xano’s henchmen.
They are brought before the evil King Xayno, who decides to force Dr. Karlock to work in his science laboratories. The beautiful Jean Jarvis catches his interest, but Rocky tells him to keep away from Jean. Xayno threatens to throw Rocky into the Pit of Vast Torture and Suffering. When Jean agrees to marry him, he relents and instead throws our hero into the Pit of Agonized Wailing (which Xayno insists is a much nicer pit, relatively speaking).
Rocky manages to escape the Pit of Agonized Wailing and reunites with Chip, who was nursed to health by his new friend Klarff, Prince of the Squirrelmen (Matt Sears). The Squirrel people live on the Moon, and Klarff is an instant ally, having come to Argor on the same mission as Rocky and the crew.
In order to better determine a course of action, Rocky, Chip, and Klarff decide to visit the mysterious oracle Lady Actulus (Sabrina Farhi) on her goblin-infested asteroid. She tells them to find Barron Ozzric (Jeremy Banks) of the planet Togg, who may help them, as his planet is being occupied by Xayno’s forces. Unfortunately, Ozzric is in love with Xayno’s daughter, Princess Astra (Michelle McNally), an appallingly spoiled young woman.
At the World Space Council headquarters on Earth, the president of the United States of Earth, Walter Jarvis, speaks with his two lead scientists, Drs. Crabbe (Timothy Mather) and Middleton (Nicolas Marti), about the fate of Earth, should Rocky’s mission fail. The scientists show him many options for blowing up the Moon, but to their dismay and consternation, Jarvis won’t allow it. All they can do is watch as the Moon draws ever nearer.
On Togg, the crew is attacked by Ozzric’s Highwaymen, who wear rocket boots. Rocky and Klarff steal pairs of the rocket boots, and a fight breaks out in midair. Rocky and Klarff are captured and brought to Barron Ozzric himself, who accuses them (over and over again) of being Xayno’s spies. Meanwhile, Xayno isn’t the only one looking for Rocky and his crew. Xayno’s awful daughter Princess Astra and his long-suffering super-henchman Commander Nefarrus (Mike Wirsch) are looking for Rocky. Astra wants the handsome hero to herself, and Nefarrus wants him dead.
Up to this point, the play has followed the usual sf serial narrative with stock characters which never grow or change—from beginning to end, there isn’t a deep thought in their heads. Sproul, however, has wondered what would happen if the characters did become aware of their own shallow behavior and the bizarre conventions of the form. Rocky, wondering why Jean would prefer Xayno to him, returns to Lady Actulus to find that she’s become a psychiatrist. Her advice to him is to find out what Jean wants in a relationship. As a result, he realizes that he’s only ever been a pretty face to vanquish the evildoers. In a truly hilarious moment (there were so many, it’s hard to choose my favorite), Rocky is fighting the prison guard while Dr. Karlock and Jean look on. During the fight, Rocky goes through a psychological epiphany as he fights against the Invis-o-whip-wielding guard (yes, it’s invisible, and when it’s dropped he searches the floor for it). Jean, too, comes to the realization that she could be more—that she could be the one to fight the guards.
Meanwhile, having not heard from the crew of the X-1, the president orders the destruction of the Moon, to the great delight of the scientists. Just as they begin the countdown to the missile launch, the static-ridden voice of Dr. Karlock comes over the radio.
Rocky, Jean, and the resurrected Chip (I’ll get to that wonderful running joke in a moment) attempt to turn off the gravity ray. Chip is killed—again—and Xayno arrives and attempts to stop them. Jean makes Xayno realize that being evil doesn’t make him happy. Xayno realizes this and tries to kill them anyway. Jean, discovering her inner warrior, rushes in and punches him. During the short fight, Xayno accidentally falls into the Pit of Eternal Hellfire. In addition, not only have the characters begun to develop, but physics, long absent from Hollywood serials, has also finally manifested. Jean points out that even though they’ve turned off the ray, they cannot stop the Moon’s inertia and Earth’s gravitational pull.
ROCKY: I can’t believe no one thought of the inertia and gravity issues before now. Did we finally discover what you’re a professor of? Physics, maybe?
JEAN: No. I remembered while we were walking up the mountain. I’m an entomologist.
The crew is finally reunited and blasts off in the X-1, only to be confronted by Nefarrus who intends to blow them up. Miraculously, Chip once again returns alive, floating in space between the two ships. He heroically throws himself in front of the X-1, taking the laser blast and blowing to smithereens. The Moon gets closer to the Earth (we see a squirrelwoman and baby screaming and cut to a human woman and baby screaming), and at the last moment is pulled away by the X-1 using a giant tow chain. Our valiant crew returns, and Rocky is granted the title Space Captain by the president.
The interplay between film and live action allowed for many specific references to serial sf. For instance, the beast of Argor, in a nod toward films such as Them! (1954) and Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), was filmed with an extreme upshot of a very cute cat. The largest running joke and perhaps the audience favorite, revolved around the frequent deaths of Chip Skipper. Very much in the style of South Park’s “They killed Kenny!”, Chip comes back again and again, with each subsequent death more absurd and extreme than the previous one. As the characters become more aware of themselves, they begin to realize that this is exceedingly odd. In the film clip of Rocky, Jean, and Chip making their way to the gravity ray, a laser bolt comes from above and strikes Chip, killing him:
ROCKY: This is what I’ve been saying! It’s like he does it on purpose!
JEAN: (looking around) Where did that even come from? There’s no one around.
ROCKY: Whatever. We’d better get up to the Gravity Ray—Klarff and Ozzric can’t distract Xayno’s men forever. I’m counting on you to back me up.
Rocky never turns around during this exchange and continues to walk up the mountain.
In an extremely self-referential moment, the performance nodded toward live performance’s inability to show certain science fictional moments because of its own artistic limitations. In keeping with the film serial nature of the narrative, the action was interrupted at points by the scrolling “chapter” installments giving exposition. As the material for chapter five began to play, the film “broke” and a title proclaimed missing reel. The action picked up with the beginning of chapter six which recapped the action in chapter five. Apparently, we missed (and the theatre cannot show on stage) that Rocky fell into a freak wormhole and appeared in a land ruled by “giant eight-legged web-spinning Tyrannosauruses.” From there, the explanation became increasingly ridiculous, culminating in Rocky’s return only moments after disappearing “because of some weird time-dilation-stuff.” By this point in the performance, I was laughing so hard I needed oxygen.
Part of the success of the performance was due to the cast’s beautiful comic timing and the tight direction of Lindsey Moore Sproul. Matthew Wise created a wonderfully arrogant Rocky that contrasted beautifully with the confused and more self-aware characters, and Alicia Barnatchez’s Jean moved in beautiful opposition to Wise’s Rocky. As Wise took Rocky to a more vulnerable and generous place, he became slightly smaller—not slouching, but pulling the character inward. Against this Barnatchez slowly transformed the tentative physicality of Jean into a more confident posture. Chip Skipper, as interpreted by Jeremy Mather, was wonderfully perky, so much so that I had to refrain from wanting to walk on stage and smack him. Other notable standouts were Jeff Sproul and Mike Wirsch as Xayno and Nefarrus. Sproul has a delightful wallow in the space villain delighted with his own cleverness and exasperated with the hired help. Wirsch’s Nefarrus gave the impression of a guy who has resumés out for another job because his boss is so dependent.
I hate to admit to favorites, but the pre-recorded scenes between the president and the two scientists very nearly upstaged the action. Sean Williams made a wonderful straight man in the midst of many comedians. His delightful seriousness left openings for both Timothy Mather and Nicolas Marti. Playing off the typical solution in the face of catastrophe—blow it up—Mather and Marti gave the scientists a geeky giddiness in the face of something that could get them in with the cool kids and chicks—destroying the Moon! Another favorite moment of mine involved an attempt to contact the downed X-1. Each time the radio was adjusted, there would be the usual nonsensical meaningless techno-babble of pulp sf, but the jargon becomes increasingly incomprehensible and absurd until Dr. Crabbe finally asks, “Dr. Middleton, are you just making stuff up because you don’t want to admit that you can’t fix the problem?” The back-and-forth exchanges of Mather and Marti had a snap and sparkle not unlike the Marx Brothers.
Where the production became less satisfactory was in the design. The minimal set by Lindsey Moore Sproul and Jak Prince worked very well in not distracting from the main focus—the acting. I enjoyed the play between the filmed scenes and the live action a great deal, and it certainly looked at some of the stage limitations of sf with tongue firmly in cheek. This said, the segments were so slickly filmed that the quality disconnect between the video production and the live action production became apparent. I do not mean in any way that the live portions were bad—they weren’t, far from it—but the contrast between the two pulled me out of the performative moment enough to notice a difference.
Part of what intrigued me was the billing of the production. The promotional material mentioned that the play, like the film, would be performed in black and white. I was burning to know how that would work. The unfortunate answer is that it doesn’t. The costuming aspect worked because keeping to a black and white palette is fairly simple and the costuming maintained the look of a late 1930s serial—for instance the neo-future Roman look for Xayno’s henchmen. The make-up, however, proved the downfall in this instance. The problems were twofold. First, even in the small space of the Kraine it just didn’t read well. It was hard to discern anything different with the actors’ skin beyond the fact that they all looked a trifle pale. Second, the performance was intensely physical, and the make-up simply couldn’t stand up to the abuse. It was still a good idea and a technique that should be experimented with a bit more.
The physicality that was so hard on the makeup was amazing. Adam Swiderski did a wonderful job choreographing effective but hilarious fights. Rocky takes out two guards with one punch, and the invisible whip fight of course. While absurdly over the top, Swiderski kept the moves manageable for the actors, and the movements all made tactical sense.
I’ve made mention of other performances that riff on sf serials, most notably Savage Radio Plays (NYRSF 278) which also referenced the old radio and movie serials. Perhaps the best known of the film serials is Flash Gordon. First published as a comic strip in 1934, the character went on to inspire the 1936 serial Flash Gordon, starring Buster Crabbe, which was followed by a second serial Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938). The third and final serial, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, ran in 1940, and these shaped the public perception of science fiction for decades to come.
As David G. Hartwell notes in the introduction to The Space Opera Renaissance, what was once a pejorative—indicating the worst of hack pulp writing—has transformed into something if not valued, then certainly enjoyed. I’ve mentioned that my father, sister, and I would watch those old movie serials when they aired on television. Those Saturday mornings produced a love of sf and some fond memories. Some fresh squeezed orange juice is nice at breakfast, but I learned to like my pulp on the side served with my earliest meals of sf.
Jen Gunnels lives in a shiny silver spaceship on a long long journey to the future.
A PDF copy of the NYRSF issue in which this editorial first appeared is available for purchase at Weightless Books.
A print edition of Issues 289 and 290 is available from