REVENGE IS A DISH BEST SERVED WITH SPACE PANDASBy Greggory Moore
The Garage Theatre peeps have made a mistake. Early on in the promotion of Revenge of the Space Pandas, they noted that this is “the only kids’ show that David Mamet ever wrote.” And while that’s makes for a funny set-up for the following statement, “NO WE ARE NOT FUCKING WITH YOU FUCKING BRING THEM,” the mistake is that, however appropriate indeed the play is for children, it is not exclusively for children any more than was Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. The success of the latter was not that it really could compete with Sesame Street for a share of that demographic, but that its appeal transcended being in that box.
Mamet’s Space Pandas—especially in the Garage’s able hands—has exactly that appeal. Yes, young’uns can enjoy it, but truth be told, the absurdist humor aims above their heads.
Binky Rudich (Douglas Thoin) is a precocious 12-year-old resident of Waukegan, IL, where he lives with his parents and Bob the Sheep (Joe Howells). One day while being visited by coeval Virginia Mooster (Geraldine Uy) and trying to avoid going downstairs to eat the casserole his mom has made, he gets his two-speed clock working and is spun off the Earth 50 light years to the planet Crestview, the pearl of the Goose Nebula, where he gets caught up in the palace intrigue of George Topax (M.S. Cliff E. Threadgold), who loves to drop giant pumpkins on people’s heads and is pining for a wool sweater (he’s allergic to the artificial stuff)—his problem being that there are no sheep on Crestview…until Bob arrives.
Space Pandas is one of those pieces of writing in which the plot is merely a vehicle for the laughs. As long as the comedy’s good, you’ll let it drive you anywhere. And Mamet’s comedy is good. Not that I really hear Mamet’s voice in Space Pandas, but the goofiness on display does speak of a writer whose mind and quill are sharp. Yes, it’s all silly, but there’s a difference between mindless silliness and silliness with a mind (even if we’re not talking about South Parkean brilliance, which is clearly not for all ages on any level). Like him or not, Mamet is too conscious of every word ever to be the former.
Speaking of silly, it might be just that to talk of a theatre company’s evincing a true understanding of a silly script, but that’s exactly what director Matt Anderson and cast do. It’s probably more important in a play like this than with something like Glengarry Glen Ross for the actors consistently to remain perfectly committed to the material, because unlike with a great dramatic work that succeeds partly based on verisimilitude, there’s nothing in the text of Space Pandas that’s going to adhere to your soul. It’s all surface, so the actors better shine.
And they all do. More than anyone, Howells is the one who put me in mind of the Pee-Wee Herman school of comedy, as his delivery of intentionally incongruous and funny-bad udderances[i] is quick and all over the map in terms of style. Threadgold’s bombastic Topax is not annoyingly so, having just enough nuance to make the bombast maximally effective. Jackie Riddle[ii] as Topax’s royal retainer is a surprise (i.e., considering the role) scene-stealer, with her lightning quick shifts in modulation and Malcolm McDowell-in-A Clockwork Orange wordless staring. Even minor roles like the space pandas (the title is a throwaway; the play is about neither space pandas nor revenge) Kevin Rockway and particularly Lola Laguna Binkerd shine, even simply while playing Go Fish.
Just as every member of the cast is excellent, so is every aspect of the mise en scène. Curtis Jerome’s costumery helps immerse us in the merriment, and the combination of Levi Gadson’s rather elaborate set and Kristal Greenlea’s trippy lighting (just wait until you get spun off the Earth with Binky, Virginia, and Bob) would make the show an enjoyable experience sensorily even if the script and performance had little else to offer. Plus, upon entry you’re given the accoutrements to blow bubbles during the action, and you get lunafish casserole at play’s end. What the hell else do ya need?
If this doesn’t sound fun, you’ve just read 800 words of my not doing a good job. Go out to the Garage and see what I mean.
REVENGE OF THE SPACE PANDAS THE GARAGE THEATRE • 251 E 7TH ST (JUST OFF LONG BEACH BLVD) • LONG BEACH 90813 • 562.433.8337 THEGARAGETHEATRE.ORG • FRI 8PM, SAT 2PM + 7PM, SUN 2PM • $15; $10 FOR TEACHERS, STUDENTS, AND SENIORS; $10 FOR KIDS • THROUGH DEC 19TH
[i] This is not an example of a funny-bad joke but a groaner, with which Mamet does not infect Space Pandas.
[ii] Sounds like a character name, but it’s not.