Lost in Space

Gaslight Theatre's production of 'Space Rangers' drifts out of orbit into dull territory

The summer doldrums have set in at Gaslight Theatre. The normally exuberant company's latest comic musical melodrama is uncharacteristically lackluster. Space Rangers 2025: The Battle for the Galaxy, or Rocket to Me, seems like one long countdown to a delayed ignition, and the show never reaches escape velocity.

The problem lies mainly with writer-director Peter Van Slyke, who seems to have taken a lesson from the early American space program, when NASA would send chimps into low orbit. Van Slyke apparently subcontracted this script to a monkey at a typewriter; somebody, anyway, pressed the usual buttons and came up with an entirely formulaic version of what Van Slyke and other Gaslight stalwarts generally do with far greater verve. And in terms of directing, the chimp just waved his arms at a bunch of Gaslight regulars, expecting them to go through the standard motions without bringing any real life or enthusiasm to the stage.

A spacewalk scene, for example, is the sort of unlikely thing that the Gaslight crew usually pulls off with wonderful, self-consciously cheesy panache, but in Space Rangers, the sequence is aimlessly written, clumsily directed and listlessly acted.

The plot, as always, pits a team of bumbling but stalwart do-gooders (two of whom develop a chaste romance) against a team of inept but persistent evildoers. This time, the good guys are the Space Rangers, sort of a bargain-basement Starfleet (their costumes shamelessly rip off Star Trek: The Next Generation, and their spaceship's bridge bulkhead opens with the same squeak-swoosh used in the original Star Trek series, a show that also inspired the table servers' getups). The bad guys are a Space Ranger turncoat, a mad scientist who's developing a doomsday weapon and the exceptionally cute but evil empress of the planet Arachnophobia.

The bad guys, alas, aren't particularly threatening. Dr. Zodiac, the mad scientist (played by David Orley), is a lumbering nutcase, but the only really scary thing about him is his wig. Spiderella, empress of Arachnophobia (a role that alternates Deborah Klingenfus and Nancy la Viola), is just a perky ingenue likely to get you into trouble on a wild date. The traitor, Capt. Vic Velocity (Christopher Wilken), lacks a truly vicious streak, let alone motivation.

The good guys are cheerful but not very inspiring. Capt. Rick Rocket (Todd Thompson or Ben Crawford) lacks the foibles that make most Gaslight heroes so amusing and endearing. His love interest, radio operator Trixie Taylor (Sarah Vanek or Katie Anne Larson), is a welcome, pixie-ish presence but neither sufficiently ambitious nor imperiled to be a good melodrama heroine. Android officer RX-D3 (Dan Gunther or Ben Crawford) is a manual of lost opportunities. Maintenance chief Sparky (Joe Cooper or Tom Potter) provides some comic-sidekick laughs with his Goober (rather than Gomer) Pyle persona, but he has poor material to work with. Team leader Professor Quantum (James Gooden or Tom Potter) is a standard-issue avuncular figure who has no real purpose on stage.

So we watch these eight leggy freaks with deepest sympathy as they do what they can to energize the uninspired script and song parodies (the doomsday device, for instance, will turn planets into "Great Balls of Fire"). Unfortunately, a mere three weeks into the show's three-month run, the actors are already showing signs of boredom. Last week's Tuesday performance was more sleepwalk than spacewalk; actors were dropping their lines, exiting early and dancing with little energy. Half the fun at Gaslight is watching the actors ad-lib their way through rough spots, but even that provided little pleasure.

Even the normally ebullient Linda Ackermann, serving as music director, pianist and lead pre-show and intermission entertainer, seemed not to be fueled to capacity, although her choice of space-related songs during intermission was mercifully unhackneyed. Only the intentionally silly scenic design of Tom Benson was up to the usual standard.

Things picked up considerably with the end-of-evening olio, a parody of The Gong Show, as if Chuck Barris' demeaning '70s-schlock precursor to American Idol weren't already a parody of itself. Joe Cooper does a wickedly funny impersonation of the shallow and antsy Barris, while the rest of the cast members appear as no-talent contestants. The audience is supposed to boo them until Barris strikes his gong and sends the aspiring entertainers away, but some of the acts are so fun to watch that the audience forgets to boo, and the performers run out of lyrics and start making lines up.

This is the true spirit of the Gaslight, and it's too bad the main show doesn't share it. Space Rangers, alas, is like something that's broken free of the asteroid belt: a lifeless lump drifting aimlessly.