You never know what gems can be found by digging in Chicago theater basements, especially that of Chicago’s Chopin Theater. This is the same raw theater space from which David Cromer launched his sparse and riveting production of Our Town just a few years ago. So fasten your seatbelts and prepare to blast off to the wacky world of Wild Women of Planet Wongo.
As you enter the antique filled basement anteroom at the Chopin, you see that it is aglow with planetary inspired colored light fixtures and plasma lamps, interspersed among several projection screens showing vintage sci-fi images, both real and specially created for the show. Immediately, you are happily transported into a cartoon version of outer space with a decidedly Jetson’s influence, putting you in the appropriate mood to enjoy this wacky musical tribute to beautiful women and bad sci-fi movies of the 50’s.
According to the authors, although the show takes its title largely from the 1958 “Z” movie, Wild Women of Planet Wongo it owes more inspiration in its plot to the 1953 green cheese-ball of a picture, “Cat-Women Of The Moon.” In any case, it’s an imagined universe of big breasted, hard fighting, untamed women, who represent both a siren’s allure and a Freudian challenge to the male establishment of the day.
The crowd is invited to take pictures and video during the show, and post them on Facebook to win a prize later in the show…a really brilliant ploy to engage the audience in their marketing. Audience members are also urged to order an eerily green “Wongotini” (Vodka and Midori martini) to weaken their resistance. Then, after being warned not to fondle the scantily clad Wongo women, the audience is ushered into the adjacent performance space, which is wrapped all around in marvelously stylized and animated projected images which puts them smack dab in the middle of the eponymous planet.
Wongo is a world of warrior women, who get their rockets fired up when a commercial cargo ship carrying a load of Crater Chips (provided to audience members as tasty souvenirs) lands for a pit stop. The ship brings the only two men the women have ever seen: The horny and comical first mate, Louis Le Fevre, played with appropriately broad strokes by James Mann, and the forthright captain of the ship, Ric Rogers, ( Michael Hayden Sprenger). Once found by the Wild Women of Wongo, the fate of the men rests in the hands of their imperious Queen Rita (Jen Connor). Owing to a plot twist which I won’t give away, the Wongo Women are unsure whether they should be mating with these Earthlings, or boiling them in a pot for lunch. As the mystery is unravelled, comedy ensues.
The show was debuted in NYC at the Ensemble Theater, and then at the New York Musical Theater Festival in 2005 in a traditional proscenium staging. Producer-composer Dave Ogrin subsequently reconceived his show as an immersive experience for productions at the Brooklyn Fireproof and Parkside Lounge in NYC. Director David Rigano has restaged it that way here. The audience stands around the cast throughout the show, and becomes a part of the theatrical action. It was a wise choice. From a distance, the plot and characters seem thin, and it’s harder to relate to them. But Chicago is known for intimate, in your face theatrical style. By bringing the audience into the action, Rigano has seriously ramped up our engagement with the material.
It is with unexpected admiration I say that this production is as much like a theme park ride as it is theater. Every moment is controlled by the pre-recorded blend of song tracks alternating with sound effects, background music, and messages from the Earth ship’s computer, Hermie, who sounds more than a little like Paul Lynde. There isn’t a missed beat in this show. Even the two intermissions are carefully planned with audience participation games. Wild Women of Planet Wongo is, if nothing else, a brilliantly crafted and cleverly planned evening of non stop entertainment.
The talented, young. all Chicago company sing and dance their rockets off. As much as I enjoyed Jen Connor’s spirited “mean girl” take as the Wongo Queen, I wished she had been a bit more genuinely mature, in contrast with her truly green (or rather, purple), virginal subjects. Sprenger as Captain Rick exudes boyish charm and sincerity. But he could have used a little time in the weight room, and another ten years of maturity, to truly capture the square jawed, leading man type which the role screams for…especially when, for reasons I won’t disclose, he ends up in drag later in the show. The other women of Wongo, Freya Falkenstein, Sabrina Harms, Sarah Bacinich, Sissy Ann Quaranta, all fine comediennes, and a particularly Wongolicious beauty, Katherine Wettermann , variously slink, snarl, vamp, and giggle, each in their own cosmic way.
The whole tech team have brought great design ideas to the party. Clever animations by Rudy Agresta bring the talking eyeball, Herbie, to life, and and cartoon sound effects punctuating the live action by sound and video designer Robert Hornbostel help blend the real and surreal environments. Retro costumes by Kate Setzer Kamphausen, towering purple wigs by Keith Ryan, great movement choreography by assistant choreographer Chelsea Ward, and all the kitchy little touches by set designer Alec Long come together to create the perfect intergalactic party atmosphere.
The book by Ben Budick and Steve Mackes, based on a concept by Budick, moves the slim story along with a handful of well paced jokes, but is short on real character development. In a previous interview, director Dave Rigado said he thought the show commented on sexual identity in a way that had contemporary resonance. The end of the show does try to go that way a bit, referring to the men as “undocumented immigrants” and giving us a speech from the Queen about accepting the remote possibility of men being equal to women. But the body of the show doesn’t give us any surprises or different attitudes on the subject. So, in general this show merely delivers the stereotypes we expect without ever really challenging our ideas of gender roles, or sex as power.
The music by Dave Ogrin is frequently catchy and always well produced, although a bit heavy on the drums in the prerecorded tracks. The lyrics by all three team members are well crafted and consistently witty, but deliver no more real character development than the book does. The team has said they want this show to be the next Rocky Horror Picture Show audience participation experience. But there is nothing in this writing to match the sexually subversive appeal of “I’m a Sweet Transvestite….”
In the thirteen years since their NYMF presentation, the team has created a much slicker entertainment which still never rises beyond mere genre parody. But don’t let that deter you from joining the party. Check your prime directive at the door, grab a Wongotini, munch on some Crater Chips, and “wock” out with the Wild Women of Planet Wongo.
Credits: Based on a concept by Ben Budick; Book by Steve Mackes; Music by Dave Ogrin; Lyrics by Ben Budick, Steve Mackes and Dave Ogrin; Directed by David Rigano. At the Chopin Theater, 1543 W. Division Street, Chicago IL through July 28.