Space Kümité is probably the most good, clean fun one can have consuming a piece of media that revolves around a fight to the death to settle a debate about recycling human waste.
At least, I think that’s what this glorious, kinda genderqueer, kinda cyberpunk, totally chaotic show is partially about.
The latest—and arguably most experimental—theatrical production from the Baltimore Rock Opera Society (BROS), Space Kümité makes for a delightfully hectic viewing experience. Audience members/participants are herded through the functional Peabody Heights Brewery (whose industrial innards have been convincingly made over as the bowels of a starship) seated in bleachers or scattered standing around hightop tables, and yelled at a lot.
Someone in a fluorescent wig might sneak up behind you and mutter disparagingly about another character in the middle of their monologue. The audience is sometimes encouraged to drown out the actors with chants and other times invited to cast votes to decide the characters’ (and the starship’s) fates. The story hops in and out of a few brief musical numbers that don’t feel quite as organically woven into the flow of the show as we’ve come to expect from our local Rock Opera mavens.
The ringmaster of all this is an unnamed, gender-ambiguous narrator/host played flawlessly by Izzak Michael. They saunter through the chaos, difficult scene transitions, and dialogue that’s questionably ad-libbed or scripted with the sass and confidence of a seasoned hostess of many a dive-bar drag show. It’s remarkable that in a spectacle-heavy production featuring live musicians, aerial combat, a bevy of visual effects, and audience participation Michael manages to hold and direct the room’s attention.
In retrospect, I find myself surprisingly confused about how exactly that above mentioned voting system is supposed to work, considering this show spends a borderline-absurdist amount of time on explanatory exposition in comparison to narrative “meat.” Are we deciding who wins the fights? Or who goes into the fights? Are the finalists those who get the most negative and positive votes? If so, is it better to get more negative votes than positive votes? If you’re having this much fun, does it even matter?
But I’m equally pleasantly surprised that the BROS have managed to take a lot of ‘80s pop culture tropes and mash them up into something that feels both innovative and weirdly relevant to the present. At times Space Kümité feels cozily like the kind of post-apocalyptic sci-fi adventure I grew up watching, and then can subtly evoke the contemporary electoral dysfunction, environmental problem-solving stalemate, and terrifying violent energy of a Trump rally. It makes perfect sense that this show would open in the dystopia of the now—November 2019 is, after all, the setting of 1982’s classic Blade Runner, where income-stratified residents of an environmentally ravaged Earth are bombarded with advertisements offering a better life in the off-world colonies by their corporate technocrat overlords. Sounds about right.
There are few genres that are as rich as sci-fi for both its capacity to feel experimental and familiar simultaneously. It seems like at some point in the past century or so (after Darwin, I guess?) the idea of the “creation myth” stopped capturing the imagination of the public—some deep pockets of Red State America excepted, of course. So we started setting our morality plays in the future. Space, or the post-apocalyptic Earth, or the dystopian mega-city, or some virtual-reality cyberspace is the backdrop for our new mythology. Contemporary audiences recognize the motifs and stock characters of the relatively recent movement of sci-fi more universally than the archetypes of classical literature or character masks of Greek drama.
So without being told, we can probably guess that the starship Ilion, where Space Kümité is set, has long been lost in the cosmos—her silver-lamé-clad argonauts the genetically engineered descendants of humans who fled environmental disaster on Earth. And when we see our host who looks to have taken some fashion inspiration loosely from Tina Turner in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome standing in front of “the Dodecahedragon” (the set’s prominent, cage-like centerpiece) we can more or less figure out that this is going to be a “Two men enter, one man leaves!” kind of scenario. And when we see CGI faces with robotic voices floating on screens being worshipped by humans, we can almost certainly deduce that these are seemingly all-knowing AIs being treated as pseudo-deities by the survivors of the human race.
And yet all of the characters mentioned above seem to spend a disproportionate amount of their stage time explaining all of this to us. In the hands of basically anyone else, so much telling instead of showing would make for an extremely tedious piece of theater. But because this is the BROS, all this unnecessary exposition comes across as part of the spectacle. There’s never a point where the audience finds itself bored by some overly convoluted concept here, no matter how many there may be. Still, by the time the show ended, I found myself wishing less time was spent on exposition just so there could’ve been more time spent giving us glimpses into the lives of these characters we barely got to know—as well as more opportunities for BROS’ talented songwriters to get creative. What would a power-ballad-driven romantic subplot look and sound like in this genetically modified populace? A crust punk tribute to space booze made from the ship’s pee-recycling system? Where’s the angsty anthem disowning the entitled forefathers (us) who trashed the Earth in the first place?
The storytelling basically sticks to the central conflict, which revolves around three factions debating the future of the starship Ilion. The audience is cast as their shipmates who must judge their cases based on their musical pitches and combat. There are the Keepers, zealots who insist the ship attempt to return to Earth and clean up the mess humanity left behind. The Loopers believe with equal fervor that humanity’s best chance for survival is to “close the loop” and eliminate the concept of waste from the management of the ship’s limited resources. And then there are the Seekers, a sort of space-frat with Silicon Valley tech-bro optimism that humans can just find unending resources on unending planets to colonize somewhere out there. They lead the crowd in chants of “TAKE UP SPACE!”—a cry to literally manspread across the galaxy.
I won’t spoil the plot—partly because I’m still not entirely sure what the hell actually happened, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s the raucous interstellar journey that’s what’s important, not the narrative’s destination. There’s a special kind of energy and glorious DIY aesthetic that BROS productions have. A rough estimate after skimming the playbill leads me to believe at least 100 people were involved in Space Kümité, from the kick-ass costuming and ambitious sets, to musicians, writers, actors, and half a dozen other tech specialties. And it honest-to-sultry-AI-goddess seems like every single one of them was having a hell of a lot of fun doing it.
Space Kümité runs Friday and Saturday nights through November 23 at Peabody Heights Brewery. For tickets and more info, visit the event page.
Photos courtesy Meg Peterson