Kosmic Mambo

Cosmonauts and scientists Credit: David Cooper
Cosmonauts and scientists
Credit: David Cooper

At Studio 58 until October 19, 2014

Posted October 6, 2014

Nobody brings a curtain down like the students at Studio 58. Colourful. Exuberant. Rowdy. Hand-clappingly, foot-stompingly boisterous. Two dozen strong, this ensemble blasts off with Ukrainian/Cossack-style dancing.

Co-created by David Mackay and Wendy Gorling, Kosmic Mambo is inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) and the USA/USSR race to space in the 1950s and 60s.

Linking the two is a stretch but everything about this production, co-directed by Mackay and Gorling, pushes boundaries: the interior and exterior of a spaceship complete with blinking lights, dials and switches by designer Shizuka Kai is amazing and made even more remarkable by Itai Erdal’s ‘space-y’ lighting; through a large portal in the ship we see infinity and we dodge hurtling space junk via Corwin Ferguson’s projection design; Brian Linds’ sound design takes us back to the 50s and 60s and the emergence of acid rock, which is totally consistent with Coleridge’s opium-induced visions; and Mara Gottler puts the space travellers in simple, bright orange spacesuits but lets lavishly loose on Death and Life-in-Death, a pair of ragged spirits. Everything about this show is big and space-aged. And almost completely wordless.

Mision Control Credit: David Cooper
Mision Control
Credit: David Cooper

While many of us read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in school, it’s worth reading the program notes. I had forgotten that the story begins and ends with a derelict mariner cornering a wedding guest and relating his sorry saga of the mysterious death of a whole ship’s crew but one – himself – at sea. In this re-visioning, the mariners are 20th century cosmonauts and the albatross becomes Sputnik 2’s doomed dog Laika.

As always, it’s the enthusiasm and creative energy of the students that make Studio 58 shows achieve lift-off. The school’s trademarks are tight ensemble playing, physical movement, style and sharp choreography – all of which are abundantly illustrated here. The opening number pits the two opposing teams of cosmonauts – American and Russian – in a wordless battle for supremacy with flags flying and anthems swelling. The choreography here is tight, lock stepped and precise. But the eruption of the wedding guests onto the stage is wild, unfettered and goofy. And, indeed, humour is used throughout the hour and a half show. The dog – a charming, furry puppet exquisitely handled by Tom Krushkowski – let loose in the spaceship, sniffs crotches, bites butts and behaves like any exuberant puppy.

Between the upbeat beginning and the rousing conclusion, a whole lot happens that’s visually stunning but narratively vague. Certainly the most exciting aspect of Kosmic Mambo is visual not dramatic. That’s partly because the hero is an anti-hero. That he finds redemption is laudable but even Coleridge’s original poem was weak on this point: the character’s epiphany – all creatures great and small are loved by God and therefore should be loved by him – seems empty (especially as we approach Thanksgiving with all those roast turkeys on all those tables).

Without words, Kosmic Mambo relies heavily on exaggerated physicality that, for the most part, works. It’s possible that throughout the run, however, some of it will feel less mechanical, more human.

Although Studio 58 always emphasizes the collective nature of its productions, Markian Tarasiuk, as the ancient mariner/modern cosmonaut, is outstanding. A student of Ukrainian dance since early childhood, Tarasiuk executes the pike (the leap into the air with arms and legs flung wide) flawlessly again and again. He does flips and leaps; he languidly floats in space. The Captain Kirk of this particular Studio 58 starship, Tarasiuk is a young artist to keep on your radar.

Markian Tarasiuk (centre) Credit: David Cooper
Markian Tarasiuk (centre)
Credit: David Cooper

Bold and brash, this world premiere marries sci-fi and Romantic poetry sans words; it’s a leap into uncharted territory and you might experience g-force just watching it. Check out the video here for a taste of where Kosmic Mambo will take you. And then fasten your seatbelt.