By Donna Herman
Let’s get one thing straight right from the start. “Wild Women of Planet Wongo” isn’t really musical theater, it’s a spoof, a parody. An elongated SNL sketch, even. If the title doesn’t give it away, the fact that it’s being presented in the back room of the Parkside Lounge, a bar on the Lower East Side, should do the trick.
Billing as “an immersive sci-fi comedy…performed ‘party-style’ in NYC” is a further clue to what you’ll be seeing, as is the fact that your ticket gets you your first “wongotini” free at the bar. My suggestion to you is that you take advantage of the offer. In fact, if you don’t drink, aren’t into Mystery Science Theater 3000, and the thought of being part of the show gives you hives, skip this one.
However, if you enjoy going out to bars and drinking with your friends, but don’t have anything left to say to them, this could be a fun evening. Especially if you’re a 1950’s B-movie fan, love sci-fi, are not looking for challenging material and don’t mind standing. The plot is rather pedestrian, although it delivers some witty lines and lyrics. Two bumbling male astronauts sent out on a mission to deliver snack foods to a distant mining planet, break down after 3 years of travelling with only each other for company. They crash on the fabled Planet Wongo populated by an Amazonian tribe of women who have never seen a man. Cue the astronauts who go looking not only for energy for their ship from the “natives”, but memories to fuel their frat boy fantasies when they return to space. They soon run into the lascivious lovelies who are more buff than bright, and completely obedient to their Queen. Madcap hijinks ensue. There’s singing, dancing, fighting, women dominating men, men duping women, talking computers, mixed media, and recorded music. The problem here is that a parody or spoof is supposed to skewer and turn upside down familiar tropes. In “Wild Women of Planet Wongo”, there are some cringe-worthy male/female and “native” stereotypes that went by without comment. A real miss for me was the lack of gender exploration. The topic is ripe for it and It could have added a modern sensibility, a lot of laughs, and a thoughtful twist to an otherwise meatless show.
It was, however, clever of the show’s creators, Ben Budick, Steve Mackes & Dave Ogrin to make this an immersive event rather than a strict presentational musical theater piece. Too much cool observation and scrutiny wouldn’t serve this production well. So there is no stage per se, the piece is presented all over the room, amongst the audience who is mostly standing because there aren’t enough seats. And those who have come early enough to snag the few seats will probably be moved anyway when the actors have to use that part of the room. I did snag a seat, but you can’t see anything when you’re sitting down because of all the people standing in front of you. So you have to stand. And when you’re standing, you find yourself, even sometimes despite your better judgement, smiling, clapping, nodding, laughing, and well, having a good time. Once again, although I did not indulge, I recommend partaking of the signature wongotini which includes vodka as a main ingredient.
There are two intermissions in the piece during which the audience is encouraged to refresh themselves at the bar, and audience participation games are played with the cast. Shout out here to Sage Buchalter, the Wongette MC who led these games brilliantly. She’s got a strong knack for improv and a very sharp, dry wit. And also to Amanda Nichols who plays Queen Rita with excellent comic timing and a strong voice. The performers are all young, talented and full of energy. It’s hard not to root for them and feel for them when you’re literally inches away from their earnest, shining faces. The night I was there, they had more audience members than they had ever had, and I have to give the actors props for dodging and moving people out of the way to get where they had to go. And not fumbling lines or falling down, and actually achieving their choreography. The Wongettes looked great in their surprisingly sophisticated costumes by Elise Vanderkley and make-up and wigs by Marsh Shugart, and they seemed to be having a great time. All the performers managed to walk the fine line between maintaining their characters (and they all had distinct ones) and breaking the fourth wall and engaging the audience when necessary. If they had been uncomfortable at all, it would have been a disaster. But they were up to the task and managed to invest enough enthusiasm and zest into the thin material for the audience to enjoy themselves.
Wild Women of Planet Wongo written by Ben Budick, Steve Mackes and Dave Ogrin, Directed by David Rigano, Choreography by Juson Williams
WITH: Moriel Behar (Wongette, Dance Captain), Sage Buchalter (Wongette, MC), Alesha Dukes (Wongette), Miki Hellerbach (Ric Rogers), Mary Mondlock (Wongette, Queen Rita u/s), Amanda Nichols (Queen Rita), Howie Schaal (Louie LaFever), Sarah Summerwell (Wongette)
Video and sound design by Ido Levran; animations by Rudy Agresta, lighting design by Lisa Hufnagel; set design and props by Rob Dutiel; costumes by Elise Vanderkley; make-up and wig design and wardrobe by Marsh Shugart; Amy Holson-Schwartz, General Manager; Emily Grayson, Production Supervisor/Stage Manager; Patrick Harnett-Marshall, Assistant Stage Manager; Stephanie Courtney, Assistant Choreographer; Amina Alexander, light & video board operator; Jeremiah Neal, sound board operator; Sonja Einem, assistant wardrobe; Angelina DeSocio, production assistant; Tae Braun, understudy & crew; press by Joe Trentacosta; advertising and marketing by Amanda Bohan Marketing; geek marketing and website by Chris Longo; graphics by Todd Johnson. Presented by Not Too Fancy Productions, LLC at Parkside Lounge, 317 East Houston Street, New York, NY, every Wednesday through November 16th. Tickets include a free wongotini and can be purchased at www.PlanetWongo.com or by calling 866-4111.