REVIEW: Vampire Queen of Mars - Costa Mesa Playhouse
"...This show will definitely become a camp classic!"
In this amusing, over-the-top spoof of low-budget, sci-fi B-movies prevalent from Hollywood after World War II, the Costa Mesa Playhouse continues its 54th season with the world premiere of “Vampire Queen of Mars,” just in time for Halloween, written and directed by Playhouse Board President, Michael Dale Brown, and running October 19 through November 11th. You may remember Director Brown’s previous alien invasion play, “Earthlings Beware!” which has been featured at the Playhouse twice before.
A concocted parody of the old vintage 50’s/60’s movies you might have seen on cable TV, like Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the late 80’s, “Vampire Queen of Mars” most notably mirrors "Queen of Outer Space," “Planet of the Vampires,” or "Cat Women of the Moon," which are also about female dominated planets whose attitudes towards "men" are intriguingly various. Surprisingly, the storyline in “Vampire Queen of Mars” careens from one life-threatening calamity to another but still has time to include a love interest, some profound reflections on mortal destiny, and quite a few infinite laughs as well.
As the launch gets underway, we hear Dr. John Eckmann (Jeff Bickel), our narrator, explain that distress signals are coming from the planet Mars, and Earth is sending a crew to investigate. So far, no one has even been in space, not even to the moon. That’s still 17 years away…Personally, I would at least take the ship up for a test drive first. Elon Musk aside, considering the immense distance of about 140 million miles between Earth and Mars, any trip to the red planet, according to NASA, will take an average of around 300 days, which is a huge length of time for humans to be on board a cramped spacecraft.
Complicating matters further, when we first meet our astronauts, we see they have been deprived of a basic shower for many months, and they still have the return trip back to earth to sweat out. Hopefully their ventilation system does not malfunction. Considering there is a woman aboard, I’m also wondering how they tackled the separate bathroom dilemma. Luckily, there doesn’t seem to be a gravitational problem, in that no one (or thing) seems to be floating around. They must have spent a fortune on gravitational controls and inertial dampers. There does seem to be quite a bit of free time, though, especially for personal care, as Dr. Ellen’s station contains a full makeup drawer, with lipstick, powder, the works. Somewhere Valentina Tereshkova is crying.
But nonetheless, the stalwart team under Commander Clark Garrison (Jesse Seann Atkinson), a square-jawed Dudley Do-Right true-blue hero, who has a thing for his navigator, as well as overly chipper Capt. Russ Baxter (Terrance C. Washington), hard-thinking Science Officer Professor Marlon Zander (Ron Grigsby) and practical Navigator Dr. Ellen Chambers (Ashley Montgomery) make up the four-man crew, and are all committed to the task at hand in saving whoever and whatever transmitted those signals. Meanwhile, Queen Voluptua, our instigator, is the steamy vixen queen back on Mars with an agenda. Thousands of years old, beautiful and exotic, she is, so she says, withering away from lack of sustenance (basically somebody’s red blood), and desperate to hitch a ride to Earth where there is plenty of “food.” But more about her later. We’re still in the setup shot.
The dialogue is simple and hilariously clichéd. Much of the conversation initially is about how the “Martians” will react to their arrival and if they will get along. The basic assumption is that they can understand and communicate based on their sending the S.O.S.
The set, designed by Michael Dale Brown, Ryan Linhart and Amanda Linhardt is amazingly detailed with the old fashioned computer-screen oscilloscopes, the way outdated military A-Scopes, radar scans and huge buttons and dials that seemingly maneuver the ship. But no pristine corridors, no groovy minimalist furniture, no Scotty in Engineering, no food replicators, transporters or shuttlecraft. Only a hollow tube of a rocket as our heroes are buckled into old black swivel secretary chairs equipped with seatbelts from a ‘51 Studebaker or the like (considering the time period is 1952). Acceleration G’s are portrayed as a quasi-loss of consciousness momentarily as you shake helplessly in your secretary chair.
However, a quick warp speed later, our heroes are approaching the red planet just outside of space continuum. As they land and briefly explore the environment, the good professor checks for oxygen with his O2 thingy. After a little more meaningful conversation, they declare that the air is not, in fact, loaded with inflammable toxic gases or brain-dissolving microbes, but is ready for deep inhaling. It's a balmy 72 degrees out so, next scene, they are now back in their khaki jumpsuit uniforms, and their hair is perfect!
Cautiously proceeding to the signal area, they encounter Squeak the Repton, a large lizard-like land creature that lives within the volcanic rocks. Squeak is also played by Jeff Bickel. Unable to speak, Squeak (who serves as emergency blood supply to many of the Queen's lackeys) sounds as if in constant pain with his “Ack-Ack-Ack,” bringing up memories of “Mars Attacks!” Eventually, he will also be a victim of the Queen’s displeasure, meeting his doom with her ace in the hole, the Kraken of Mars, a large monstrosity which we don’t see really, except for the large grabby tentacles protruding behind a big rock.
But I’m jumping ahead again…As the crew meets the group of Amazon Vampires, all seems congenial until Commander Clark brings out his six-shooter. Queen Voluptua (Brooke Lewis) confiscates it and gives it to Aphrodisia for safe keeping. Over time, the Consort will empty the chamber into various targets, accidentally killing a few of her sycophants. A Gollum-looking Martian, the very last one actually, sits on a leash at the feet of the ruthless Queen, only moving around occasionally with spasmodic jerks as if trying to avoid being the center of conversation. Dork (Wayne Mayberry), who initially is the Queen’s main blood supply, becomes an endearing central character in the show, especially after familial revelations to certain key players.
Kay Richey plays the High Priestess, Salacia, as second in command, but secretly not a big fan of the Queen. She delivers a Maleficent-worthy role as adversary to just about everybody. Zema is played by Adriana Catanzarite, Mary Price Moore has a double role as Domina and Margaret, and Claire Marie Sparr has triple duty as Gamma, Zorina and Panda. And not to deny the full range of talent on the vampires’ Tehran-style nightclub dancing numbers, which gives a new twist to the show, “Dancing With The Stars.”
Captain Russ and the Queen’s favorite, Aphrodisia (Emily Hansen), have an R-Rated consensual moment with mutual understanding. Aphrodisia, a typical teenager in her rebellious stage with no social media, is starving for her life essence, and Captain Russ, being the virile, lusty, red-blooded American male he is, swaps his blood for Aphrodisia’s innocence, but ultimately becomes infected. And if you’ve watched HBO’s True Blood before, you know “V,” or vampire blood, is as highly infectious as it is addictive. You first lose your mind, then lose your pulse, and at some point turn into the undead. Unfortunately, the totally hip captain succumbs to her taint.
The scenes transitioned from spaceship into igneous volcanic rocks, caves with Krakens, and large rooms with pure prismatic crystals, similar to calcite, that creates its own light and energy. Professor Zander, before his tragic demise (a vicious throat slashing from the High Priestess Salacia), had contemplated harnessing that energy for fuel for the return trip back to earth, having exhausted their fuel supply earlier with emergency measures during a meteor shower. After a period of time, however, the crystals revived him in the form of a zombie, and he is doomed to walk the planet forever. It’s lonely out in space.
All these women seem to have some spooky mind control powers with only one thing on their mind: survival. Clashes occur and casualties result from it, some more entertaining than others. A large projection screen in the rear produced images of up-close and personal pre-recorded scenes created by Kevin Jacobs, including those of a large dinosaur T-Rex (puppets actually - one of the most hilarious moments of the show), especially when he eats a Barbie doll that represents an unlucky Martian vampiress.
Dance choreography is by Nicki Peek, and Fight Choreography by Mason Meskell (yes! There are fight scenes!); Lighting Design coordinated by Ryan Linhardt, aptly assisted by Chloe Harrison. Costumes were designed by Laurie Martinez, with help from Megan McCormick and Tabitha Hendesron, and Props by Fernando Pacheco. Kudos to the entire tech crew for a wonderfully delightful sci-fi adventure!
It’s not an all’s-well that ends well though, since half the crew died, not to mention the surprise ending in the flight deck on the trip home (no spoilers), but it was so much fun watching this crazy little lampoon that I’m seriously thinking of going again. This show will definitely become a camp classic!
Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm, October 19 through November 11, 2018. Tickets are $22 general and $20 for students and seniors. Groups of 10 or more are $15 each. Reservations can be made at www.costamesaplayhouse.com or by calling 949-650-5269. The playhouse’s address is at 661 Hamilton Street in Costa Mesa.
Highly Recommended for group tickets, sci-fi movie-buffs and space geeks. You’ll love it!
The Show Report