Review by David Walters
“Hey Van, can we talk about the dogs? That’s what the people are here for.”
Nick Blaemire and Van Hughes (writers, composers, actors) frequently must remind themselves of this as the historical perspective of the story (think space race, 1950s, Cold War between Russia and the United States) often takes control of the evening, sending us down interesting rabbit holes (i.e. the history of dogs), but taking us away from their story. With so many different takes and perspectives that history provides it’s an easy thing to do and many a researcher has gotten hopelessly lost in all that Wiki information never to emerge.
Blaemire and Hughes do emerge and come shooting out cannon-like with intense velocity, energy, and purpose to share their story, no question. Capable performers, they want to tell us everything they know, but with so much to tell, it must seem stingy to them to not give us all (in fact they solicit even more info from the audience at some point). They even let us off the hook saying that we don’t have to care as much as they do. And unfortunately, they do, and we don’t. That early directive became more like an instruction as the evening progressed.
The core of the story is a relationship between Laika (“barker” in Russian), a stray dog captured for the space program, and Sergei Korolev, the chief designer of the Soviet space program (a crater on the moon is named after him). Instead of testing on humans, the Soviets used 40 dogs to run different tests on as they developed their rockets and explored what space travel could be (24 survived). These four-legged test dummies became the backbone of space firsts that the Soviets won: first man-made object to circle the globe, first live sentient being to leave earth’s atmosphere (save the fruit flies launched by the US), first man in space, first man to die in space (that’s another story). In order to launch on the date of the 40th anniversary of Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution, Sputnik 2 was rushed without a plan to return Laika safely to earth, and in a heartfelt scene between Laika and Korolev, they both ask, “Was it worth it?” Korolev covering the hole in his heart convinced yes because of all that was learned, and since we all have to die, it might as well be for something. Laika, really not so much.
The songs throughout the show comment on rather than move the story along. Though imaginative and witty, there probably isn’t going to be something you walk out of the theater humming or signing on to Spotify to hear again. You can hear excerpts from the songs here if you’d like to give a listen prior to going.
The highlight of the show is the tremendous design team including the director, set designer, lighting, props, and costumes. The set, designed as a speakerwall at a concert, becomes control panels, projection screens, acting levels, walk-through rooms, opening up to small sound stages where scenes are filmed and enacted, and granting a veritable endless opportunity of variety that the show needed.
Not a wasted evening by any means, you will learn something, feel reminiscent about your dog if you have one, come to appreciate the absurdity of a race to be first, and think about adults tussling over flying plush.
Hint: During the Cold War the US spent 20 million on a cat with a listening device implanted in its ear canal to spy on the Russians. It got hit by a car on its first mission. If you go to Space Dogs, you can use that tidbit to contribute to the evening.
Energetically directed by Ellie Heyman and starring Nick Blaemire and Van Hughes, Space Dogs is in performance through March 13, 2022 at MCC Theater on West 52nd Street in New York City. For tickets and more information, visit here. To unlock $10 off your ticket purchase use SHARE CODE: ORBIT
The fabulous design team: Scenic design – Wilson Chin; costume design – Haydee Zelideth Antunano; lighting design – Mary Ellen Stebbins; sound design – Nathan Leigh; projection design – Stefania Bulbarell & Alex Basco Koch; puppet and props design – Amanda Villalobos; choreographer – Darrell Grand Moultrie