For the last couple of summers, the Downtown Rideau Business Improvement Area and Ottawa Arts Court Foundation have co-presented a series of theatre productions as a mini-festival called Summer Fling. The lineup has included remounts of selected local productions from the Ottawa Fringe Festival, called “Fringe Benefits.” With the quiet demise of the OACF—leaving the future of the Arts Court performance spaces as a venue for independent theatre on uncertain ground—Summer Fling has been reduced to a bare skeleton: the current Ottawa Little Theatre production of Jasper Station, an Ottawa Dance Directive performance, and the Fringe Benefits selections.
This year they chose to present (for an all-too-short four-day run) a double-bill—two shows with a similar tone and theme that enjoyed reasonable popularity in the same venue during Fringe: Space Mystery… from Outer Space! and Alien Predator: The Musical. Each show lasts about 60 minutes (with a half-hour intermission between the two shows) with a total ticket price of $12. Considering individual tickets to either of these shows at Fringe were $10, that’s already a value proposition.
Actually, that just makes it a bargain. It’s only a value proposition if the shows are any good. And that, in this case, depends almost entirely on what you like, your familiarity with the genres they lampoon, and your level of tolerance for camp. Neither production makes any pretension to high art, but for those who appreciate concentrated kitsch and a send-up of genre stereotypes, they are highly entertaining.
Space Mystery… from Outer Space! (written by Jeremy Doiron, directed by Mike Doiron, with design by Patrice-Ann Forbes and Ted Forbes) is a hybrid of 1950s science fiction and film-noir mystery. Private detective Rick ‘Dick’ Derringer (Jake William Smith) has been hired by heiress Selma Widowmaker (Marissa Caldwell) to track down her missing uncle, the eccentric scientist Dr. Phineas Grimm (Tom Charlebois). They enlist the services of space dirigible captain Kit Hammerfist (Mike Doiron) and his perky first officer Patty Streem (Sylvie Recoskie) to seek out Dr. Grimm and his assistant Lyle Bunsen (Arras Hopkins), and discover what horrors their clandestine laser experiments have unleashed.
Dead Unicorn Ink. made their indelible mark using undeath-size rod-puppet zombies in Playing Dead. This time, their puppet offerings include a larger-than-life carnivorous lizard, a laser-augmented octopus (sadly, but probably safely, not featuring real lasers), and a space squirrel. The comedy starts in earnest with Charlebois channeling a manic Vincent Price. He and Hopkins turn in the highest-energy performances of the piece, and keep the ball rolling. The over-the-top campy (on a par with Thunderbirds) science fiction doesn’t mix all that well with the low-key film noir, and poor Derringer is thoroughly outnumbered by his frantic, flashy futuristic counterparts. Yet, somehow, this counterpoint in itself is appropriate to the send-up. It just works, and the audience has fun.
In Alien Predator: The Musical (written by Betty-Jane Horton, with music by Bryan Cook, and directed by Laura Young), corporate lackey Carter (Gabrielle Lazarovitz) hires an unlikely team of mercenaries—Roman (Brooke Cameron), Jackson (Andrea Connell), the inseparable ex-Marines Mac (Jonny Trafford) and Sgt. Brody (Will Lafrance), and helicopter pilot JR (Jonah Lerner)—to extricate Dr. Spengler (Mike Kosowan) and a team of scientists from the Brazilian rainforest where someone—or something (also Jonah Lerner)—is picking them off, one by one.
Having seen both productions during their Fringe runs, I can personally attest that the wholesale replacement of Alien Predator: The Musical’s female cast leads to a vastly improved show—not only can all three act, but they can also sing. This in turn means that the overall pacing is much better and smoother—the cast really works well together. The text relies for much of its effect on references to films of the sci-fi/action genre that gained popularity in the 1980s; if you don’t know exactly what they’re poking fun at, you’re not exactly lost, but you’re missing some of the better jokes. Then again, no reference is obscure—there are no inside fandom jokes (or maybe there are, and they went over my head too). Oh, and the Alien Predator has a surprisingly well-conceived costume.
Without musical numbers, a musical is, well, just a play. The wisdom of choosing to create a musical as opposed to a play hinges on three factors: the music must be good, the lyrics must be competent, and the musical numbers must be necessary—that is, the play has to be better as a musical. All three are evident in Alien Predator: The Musical. Bryan Cook’s compositions (and live performance) show clear musical talent, the lyrics are intelligent without being overclever, and the songs serve their purpose of either character development or plot advancement as the case may be far better than an interpretation through mere dialogue would. So it passes those tests.
If you are looking for serious themes to analyze in these two productions, you might start with comparing Alien Predator: The Musical’s running PMS jokes (written by a woman) to Space Mystery… from Outer Space!’s suite of dick puns (written by a man). Or, in Alien Predator: The Musical, there’s the exploration of Mac and Brody’s repressed mutual attraction through “If there was a way that I could say I love you”, a number evocative of Avenue Q’s “If You Were Gay.” One could even cook up a theory about how all these delightfully stereotypical characters are some kind of modern literary archetypes… but it’s much more fulfilling to put such considerations aside and just enjoy these productions in the spirit in which they were intended.
Parody is easy to overdo (take Evil Dead: The Musical, for example—expertly skewered more than once by Alien Predator: The Musical). Both of these shows have managed to find the sweet spot of subtly-mocking homage to the best-known examples of their respective genres. Space Mystery… from Outer Space! and Alien Predator: The Musical share the honour of being the last productions at Arts Court under the banner of the Arts Court Foundation; they’ve gone out with a bang, not with a whimper.