Home Theatre Theatre review: Kosmic Mambo is innovative and visually stunning

Theatre review: Kosmic Mambo is innovative and visually stunning

Adelleh Furseth and Markian Tarasiuk in Studio 58's Kosmic Mambo. Photo by Emily Cooper.

On the anniversary of the launch of the world’s first artificial satellite, Russia’s Sputnik 1, Studio 58 blasts off with its first production of the new season, the physical theatre production Kosmic Mambo.

[pullquote]There are some terrific physical performances from this ensemble led by an astonishingly athletic Markian Tarasiuk as the Mariner.[/pullquote]Conceived by David Mackay and co-directed with Wendy Gorling, the non-verbal piece is a re-telling of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, set against the backdrop of a fictionalised American/Russian space race to Mars.

Told with only minimal words, the piece moves quickly from the early space race which saw the Americans beat out the Russians as the first to put a man on the moon, to a fictional present day, where a space Mariner has returned to tell his story of a fantastic voyage to Mars and back.

Mackay follows the Coleridge poem with surprising accuracy, although some of the original poem’s imagery have been cleverly replaced with appropriate space references. For example, it is no longer an albatross that the Mariner kills, but a dog the Russians had launched into space years earlier, rescued by the crew of the Mars spacecraft. Mackay also changes the sea creatures with an otherworldly look, while still maintaining a fish-like quality. And like The Rime, this cosmic Mariner eventually makes his way back home, forced to wander the earth to tell his story forever.

Knowing something about the Kosmic Mambo source material going in will help immensely in following and enjoying this sometimes esoteric production. At the very least, audiences not familiar with the poem will want to take some time to read the program notes (thanks to Wikipedia), that does a great job of putting things into context. And while perhaps it could be argued that the show should be able to stand on its own, not having that additional perspective takes only a small part away from the overall success of this production.

Cosmonauts prepare for take-off in Kosmic Mambo. Photo by Emily Cooper.
Cosmonauts prepare for take-off in Kosmic Mambo. Photo by Emily Cooper.

Given there are virtually no words, it is just as important for the cast to portray the emotion of the circumstances, as it is for the movement and visuals. And while the cast nails the choreography, and the various technical aspects are some of the best you will see on stage this year, the emotional connection to the story sometimes gets lost within everything else that is going on. Given the complexity of the show this is not a big surprise, but the result is a sometimes superficial appreciation of the spectacle, rather than through the emotional aspects of its story. Perhaps with a little more time, as the physical becomes second-nature, this cast will be able to connect from the heart as much as from the head.  (Interestingly enough, in reviewing Emily Cooper’s still photography from the show for the images here, that emotional depth is evident, but it was not always visible during the live performance.)

There are some terrific physical performances from this ensemble, led by an astonishingly athletic Markian Tarasiuk as the Mariner. One has little doubt here that Tarasiuk could have a career as a dancer. Tarasiuk, and indeed the rest of this large ensemble, have energy to spare and easily tackle the sometimes complex and witty choreography. Crisp and clean as a group, they are each allowed to shine as well. Mackay and Gorling provide small surprises peppered throughout, including cast members dressed in black for the zero gravity scenes, or as seats inside the spacecraft as it takes off (photo above), and a perfectly timed routine as the spacecraft teeters on the edge. That this cast has enough left in their fuel tanks at the end of this 75 minute odyessy, to pull off a curtain call that will leave you breathless, is short of remarkable; and just wait until you see Tarasiuk’s acrobatic and high-flying Cossack dance.

Meanwhile back in Mother Russia, Mission Control charts the Mariner’s course. Photo by Emily Cooper.

And boy, is the spectacle spectacular. Set designer Shizuka Kai’s moveable set pieces allow a near seamless transition from the Russian spacecraft to the vacuum of space, highlighted by Itai Erdal’s sometimes shocking lighting design and Corwin Ferguson’s stunning projections that at times take on a three-dimensional feel. Costume designer Mara Gottler’s mix of the instantly recognizable and the fantastic are simply inspired. Brian Linds’ sound design is eclectic, with a combination of the familiar and the almost-familiar, the latter providing a suitable almost otherworldly layer to the action.

While I had hoped for a little more emotional connection to its sometimes devastating story, Kosmic Mambo more than makes up for it in delivering an innovative and visually stunning production.

Kosmic Mambo.  Original idea and adaptation by David Mackay.  Created by David Mackay and Wendy Gorling.  A Studio 58, Langara College production.  On stage at Studio 58 (100 West 49 Ave) through October 19.  Tickets are available online at Tickets Tonight.  Visit https://studio58.ca for more information.

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