Between flirtations with sexual politics in Oleanna and the con artists of seemingly every other script he’s written, playwright and filmmaker David Mamet has made time for the children’s play Binky Rudich and the Space Pandas. Theatre for Young America’s program for the show suggests classes in “space travel, time, astronomy, mathematics [and] relativity.” But it might also consider a unit on how a writer known for unflinching peeks inside sick minds tackles a children’s play.
Director Jeff Davolt, a Kansas City native imported from New York for this production, has massaged from the text every lyrical note to make it a children’s show that may be more entertaining for adults; at one recent performance, the kids were enjoying it, all right — but it was the grown-ups laughing out loud. That has as much to do with Mamet’s twisted script and wordplay as it does with the fresh and energetic cast.
The story has all the earmarks of a half-live, half-animation adventure series on Nickelodeon. Playing with a clock at a work table are Binky Rudich (Kwan Porter), a pretty regular kid, and his companion Bob (Wayne Asbury), a quick-witted sidekick who happens to be a sheep. When their friend Vivian (Jennifer Mays) joins them, the rough-and-tumble trio is shaken out of its boredom by a journey through space fifty light years hence.
A standard trip to Jupiter or Mars wouldn’t satisfy Mamet, though. His planet is hilariously called Crestview, more appropriate to an upper-bracket Midwestern subdivision than another galaxy. The kids are greeted amiably by a pair of panda bears (Sidney Lowrey and Nikki Lawrence) playing gin rummy. After some discussion about where they are and where they’re from (Waukegan, Illinois, by the way, which gets repeated a lot because Mamet thinks it sounds funny), the kids and the bears decide they’re hungry. Before taking them to meet the ruler, Topax (Taylor Bennett), the pandas treat their guests to cups of something called luna fish.
Topax is not a benevolent leader. His henchmen include a green, turnip-shaped jester called Retainer (Nathan Norcross) and a hooded executioner (Jared Humpherys) whose choices of weaponry are pumpkins and a remote control. The tale grows more traditionally perilous when the earthlings become escapees and then prisoners of war. But with the help of a washed-up matinee idol (Patrick Reynolds, who is perfectly egomaniacal) — and almost as easily as Dorothy clicking her heels to get back to Kansas — the Illinoisans’ trip home is without injury.
Sheryl Bryant’s costumes are kid-friendly for Binky and Vivian, big and wooly for Bob and mind-bending for the extraterrestrials. Besides predictable panda masks, the bears wear jujitsu pants and smocks made of a heat-resistant quilting. Davolt contributes lighting and sound design (the latter in tandem with Gene Mackey) that mixes the strobe effects of a Keystone Kops movie and the sinister shadows of The Matrix. Brianne Teevan’s sets are intricate without being showy — Topax’s royal room is accented with Pottery Barn colors.
Before the play begins, a fake radio station is blaring a playlist that includes Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” and P.O.D.’s “Youth of the Nation.” Then the lights dim and a young person’s voice says, “It was all a dream. I can’t believe this is happening.” You don’t have to know that, though, to get lost in the stars.
Post Script: Winnetonka High School’s recent production of Moises Kauffman’s The Laramie Project did well enough at the school and at the Just Off Broadway space that the show is heading to the International Thespian Festival this week in Lincoln, Nebraska. The students give two performances of the play about Matthew Shepard’s murder; one is a showcase evening performance in a 2,300-seat theater.
The Festival is in its 38th year, says director Nancy Brown, and has been held in Lincoln since 1995. The 2,100 delegates from across the globe attend workshops and seminars between each others’ performances. Yet it’s hard not to note the prestige of Winnetonka’s performance slots. “I was just hoping we’d get accepted to an afternoon performance time, and only one at that. When we got two, including the main-stage show, I was shocked,” says the school’s drama teacher, Sheri Coffman.