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Cold War Space Comedy 'Entropy' is a High-Energy Blast
A few minutes into Bill Robens's ebulliently smart new comedy, Entropy, set in the thick of the US-Soviet Cold War space race, the Apollo-esque Zeus 3 rocket ship is launched into orbit. While we can see a trio of astronauts inside the spacecraft off to one side, the real spectacle in this moment is the hilariously realized, brilliantly low-tech center-stage simulation of the rocket's fiery blastoff, the separation of its modules, and the sparkly trail of fuel left in its wake. There's even a mock "cut" from our initial midrange view to something like a close-up of the command module once it's tranquilly floating through the stratosphere.
The Theatre of NOTE performance space is rearranged for this show so that three rows of (cushioned) bleachers line what is usually the theater's side wall and the playing area is widened into the entire length of the room. In the capsule to our left the three astronauts (Trevor Olsen, Alina Phelan, Nicholas S. Williams) have been sent into outer space on a mission so secret that only two of them know what it is. Over at the other end, the stage is set up as NASA's mission control center in Houston, where officials acknowledge that the Zeus 3's new green fuel system, harnessing the photosynthesis of decorative fern plants inside the module, is so sophisticated that, at most, only one engineer on the ground (Justin Okin) might understand how it works. And even he has to frantically leaf through black binders marked "Secret Codes" and "More Secret Codes" in his futile effort to assist the crew once the spaceship's power suddenly goes out.
Directed by Christopher William Johnson, this fantastic production lampoons popular culture representations of the conflicts and achievements of the space age as much as it takes on the actual history of NASA and the US-Soviet battle for dominion over the cosmos. The show's recurring "special effects"—achieved using rolling carts, hand-held models and items attached to the ends of poles, all manipulated in full view of the audience by actors shrouded in black—parody the once-amazing, now laughably rudimentary pre-CGI techniques used in outer space films of the '50s and '60s. A pair of evil, scheming Russian diplomats (Brad C. Light and Rebecca Light) are fleshed-out Boris and Natasha cartoon characters. The Soviets' ur-satellite Sputnik is portrayed as an emotionally self-aware robot (Christopher Neiman) à la 2001's HAL, and David Wilcox charismatically stylizes his performance as the overheated NASA military chief Chuck Merrick in evident homage to the General Buck Turgidson character in Dr. Strangelove. Even the curtain calls evoke the era with a series of Austin Powers-fab tableau poses.
Robens introduces various subplots, intrigues, and relationships—at both ends of the stage—which Entropy's ensemble cast of 13 all handle with excellent comic timing and even, as occasionally warranted, sensitivity. As the only woman on board the Zeus 3, and the first "astronette" sent into space, Phelan's Samantha contends with the casual sexism of her colleagues, but establishes a meaningful bond with the unregenerate cad Scott, played by Williams, when their end seems near. It cracked us up, too, when the lights came up at one point on Samantha reading Wuthering Heights aloud to the surprisingly sensitive Sputnik robo-satellite.
The show also elicits a lot of visual laughs in response to the depiction of the zero-gravity atmosphere inside and outside the astronauts' space module and other truly ingenious effects created by a production design team that includes Krystyna Loboda, Brandon Baruch, Kimberly Freed, Corwin Evans, Richard Werner, Andrew Leman, Fred Manchento, and Misty Lee.
Anyone unfamiliar with the unique vitality of this town's small theater scene and the opportunities it affords both creative artists and audiences to take part in the development of innovative and exciting new work, without the commercial pressures of producing in larger houses, should just go and experience Entropy. The show really is out of this world—and also only in L.A.
Entropy plays Friday and Saturday nights at 8 p.m. and Sunday nights at 7, with some additional Wednesday and Thursday night performances, through May 30 at Theatre of NOTE. Online tickets $28 and $23 full price, $16.50 discounted.