Cosmonauts and scientists; photo by David Cooper

It is not for nothing that Langara College’s Studio 58 theatre training program has earned a reputation for pushing the envelope when it comes to moving the Vancouver theatre scene forward. Their latest project, Kosmic Mambo, fits in nicely with the best of their staged work.

Reimagining (but following quite closely) the plot of Samuel Coleridge’s 1798 poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a secret Mars-bound Soviet spaceship replaces the original tale’s becalmed ship at sea. A synopsis of the Rime is included in the show’s program and is well worth a quick read in order to follow the story more easily.

There are a few instances where the tale reboots, most notably when our “mariner” drifts off into space. No, not everything seems logical (nor believable) but if you can get past that, you’re in for a very enjoyable ride.

Less than 10 words are uttered throughout the one-act performance as the ensemble of 23 student actors weave in and out of multiple parts and situations. From a bare black box to a near fully-realized space ship, we see the actors exercise just about every acting muscle they individually possess to create a solid group piece. I was particularly taken by the tightly choreographed movements the audience is presented with when the actors are made weightless as they “float” about the cabin. Truly impressive.

The show’s first 10 minutes succinctly recapture the rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union for space supremacy. Tight, controlled, almost robotic Russian cosmonauts, engineers, and political functionaries initially charge ahead of the race for space by building success upon success as they launch the Sputnik series of unmanned craft and then follow up with the first man in orbit.  

The panic on the US side is palpable as we see those at NASA go from a country club casualness to giddy elation as they achieve getting their guy on the moon first. So well imagined and thought out is the set-up done through movement alone that one doesn’t have to know a thing about the Cold War to see its effect played out and writ large in front of you. 

After a very strong start, we meet an aged cosmonaut commander/mariner (Markian Tarasiuk in the show’s only star turn) as he recounts his story of life, near death, resurrection, and quasi-redemption. As the sole survivor, he’s compelled to tell his story to anyone who will listen, and what an incredible story it is

As he blasts off with six others on his mission to retake the space race lead, malfunctions cause the ship to go into distress and death looks certain. Unexpectedly, a passing sputnik comes along and inside is found a puppy. The arrival of the canine coincides with the ship’s miraculous recovery and all appears well. The crew fall in love with the puppy and their love is reciprocated perhaps to a fault.  

Narrator and The Commander; photo by Emily Cooper
[Narrator and The Commander; photo by Emily Cooper]

To force the crew’s refocus on their duties, the commander kills the pup. Malfunctions reoccur and the crew blame the commander. While the crew dies, the commander survives. Desperately alone and lost in space, mysterious forces reanimate the crew and they find a way back to Earth. The failure of the Mars mission is deemed an embarrassment to the Soviet authorities and they disavow the flight and its outcome.

To reiterate, in certainly one of the most audacious turns ever put on stage anywhere, our “hero” and the show’s lead character kills a puppy. Not just any puppy but one the audience has just fallen in love with. Ouch. Not that there was much of a choice: the puppy is a substitute for the poem’s iconic albatross.

Kosmic Mambo’s technical achievements are near breathtaking. There seems to be hundreds of lighting cues (Itai Erdal) that remind one of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The soundscape is punctuated by classic space-related tunes throughout but nowhere more effectively than when the Rolling Stones’ 2000 Light Years From Home (from their 1968 then-dud album Their Satanic Majesties Request) kicks in.  

To my recollection, back in ’68 folks wondered what the Stones were up to, taking such a career misstep. In 2014, I’m thinking Jagger and Richards would be very happy to witness their work used within the context of this production.

A word about the puppy: No dog could be as lovable as the puppet created by Skizuka Kai. If you can remember the love found on classic Star Trek’s The Trouble with Tribbles, you get a sense of what is presented here. The killing of the puppy could be compared with Kirk’s hand squeezing a tribble to death, an act hard to forgive.

In what has to be one of the longest curtain calls ever developed, the cast playfully and with great precision extend the theatricality of the evening, making for an inspired evening. The icing on this particular cake is watching graduating student Mr. Tarasiuk dazzle and astound with a series of jaw-dropping dance moves. He will be remembered for years to come.  

As will this production, co-directed by Wendy Gorling and creator David MacKay.

Kosmic Mambo is 75 minutes with no intermission and runs through October 19.

About Our Contributor Larry Ghini

Larry Ghini

Larry Ghini enjoys Vancouver's vibrant theatre scene and has taken in many productions over the years. He holds a BA in Sociology from Simon Fraser University. Larry is financially involved with the film Eadweard Muybridge, produced by Josh Epstein, directed by Kyle Rideout, and starring Michael Eklund.

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