by Marcina Zaccaria . . .

In Space Dogs, Writers Van Hughes and Nick Blaemire fill the theater with brave imagination and learned sorrow.  

My generation grew up with the MTV promotional image of astronauts placing the MTV flag on the moon.  Space Dogs is performed with that same kind of passion for iconic imagery, but takes place several decades before the political campaigns urged us all to “draw the line at the heavens.” The fervent, anguished, competitive energy has a knowing sense of humor, as Van Hughes and Nick Blaemire strut across the stage.  Their earnest, pop/ rock songfest is reassuring and loud, and the duo looks fly with their moon boots, gliding to land each phrase.  Scenic Designer Wilson Chin creates a stabilizing frame, posting oppositional Russian and American flags squarely, before video sends visuals spinning into motion.

We learn that Russia’s Chief Designer put 40 dogs into an intense training program.  The fervent pulse of the music propels the story-line, as the script cycles in time through the 50s, following the first successes in space.  Sputnik is raised like a great disco ball to the heavens.  It’s a history lesson to be reckoned with as Russian leaders declare, “They will be Mascots of the Motherland!  An advertisement for the USSR.”

Be warned, there are flight simulator modules and stuffed animals used in this production.   Laika, a singing dog, is taken off the streets.  Having won a type of beauty pageant, she is chosen to be one of the first dogs to travel up and up, beyond the Cosmodrome.  Puppet designer Amanda Villalobos completes the look of the era, keeping Laika side-by-side with a sunglasses-wearing, cigarette smoking, furry confidant.  The cuteness is almost overwhelming, while the humor cuts through.

Director Ellie Heyman seeks to do more than dazzle with tech.  Utilizing live camera feed, green screen, strobe, haze, and piercing blue light, it’s a feast for the senses.  Space Dogs insists on a type of electric, highly intense energy that forces you to question emotion beyond your reach.  The dizzying height inherent in the race to space does so much to unlock what’s trapped at the emotional core.  Meanwhile, singing puppets remain devoted to their human counterparts.  Projection Design by Stefania Bulbarella and Alex Basco Koch catapults our imagination.  As the energy bursts beyond, the larger truth is unveiled that some dogs will not return home.

Following Laika’s journey, appearing fearless, Nick Blaemire sings about Sputnik’s success and failure, as man follows dog into space.  The design team does nothing to eclipse the particularly effective image of Blaemire standing tall, while the theater glows black with blips of orange light. 

Space Dogs is extended thru March 20th at MCC’s Susan & Ronald Frankel Theater, located at 511 W. 52nd Street in NYC.  

Photos: Daniel J. Vasquez