Star City delights with low-tech farce

Saturday afternoon at the Minneapolis Comic Con, William Shatner gave a rambling, nearly incoherent speech on the importance of the American space program. Saturday evening, mere blocks away, local comedic favorite Four Humors Theatre focused its attention on the Soviet space program. Not only was it far more entertaining (Shatner's talk was fascinating mainly in a train-wreck sort of way), but the production managed to bring the spirit of the 1960s space race clearly into focus.

Set over a few days in late 1963, Star City centers on a plan to launch the ashes of Stalin into orbit, where his spirit can watch over the whole of Earth. The play's title comes from the unofficial name of the then top-secret training facility, the spot from which heroic cosmonauts are launched into space and, hopefully, brought back from their journey.

Setting a multi-door farce at mission control for the Soviet space program is the kind of brilliant move that is both entirely unexpected and absolutely fitting. After all, the constant threat of death — either from riding an unstable rocket into the unknown or from the leaders in Moscow who want success or else — gives the concept the intensity necessary for this comedic style to really fly.

As in past productions, Four Humors uses a tiny cast; in this case, a quartet of actors has up to five different characters to play, often in the same scene (another reason for the multiple doors in Megan Kedrowski's set). The characters are set apart by simple costume choices: The engineers in mission control have white lab coats, the maintenance crew wear jumpsuits, and the cosmonauts are in red tracksuits. When Breshnev shows up, he is decked out in a tall furry hat (and carrying Laika the "space dog").

It's the cosmonauts who set the plot into action. Not wanting to die aboard the unsteady and barely tested Soyuz rocket, they hatch a plan that, well, probably needed some extra time to brew. Much of the final third of the play is delightful chaos as our heroes desperately try to fool the murderous Breshnev that it is one of the brave space explorers onboard on the ship, instead of the hunk of military muscle who threatens to bring the whole plan crashing to the ground.

Four Humors' Nick Ryan crafts a story that uses the basic farce concepts — mistaken identity, desperate characters, lots of quick entrances and exits via doors — carried out by four talented and quick-witted actors who manage all of the costume and character changes with apparent ease. The cast is led by Andy Rocco Kraft, who takes on six roles, from brave cosmonaut Vladimir to Breshnev's wife, Victoria. To keep up the gender balance, Keely Wolter plays Breshnev, making the leader a loud and extremely dangerous buffoon. Brant Miller does something similar as the military leader of Star City whose threats of violence and death push the main characters to bigger and crazier extremes. The company is rounded out by Matt Spring, who plays Kir, a newcomer and the most sane character here. He is still thrilled by the chance to explore space, and also horrified by the waste that he sees around him, which makes his own role in the madness all the more delightful.

Jason Ballweber moves the action along quickly, while always clearly conveying which characters are on stage (Jenn Newman's costumes certainly help). There is a delightful low-tech vibe to the whole show — the different stages of the Soyuz launch are represented by stills, while an off-stage actor makes rocket noises — and this makes the production all the more entertaining.