The Chimponauts and the Mechanical Phantom

It may help to know sci-fi B-movies, but this space spoof by Electronic Planet Ensemble is silly fun for everyone

Puppeteer Justin LaVergne suits up to play the Chimponaut Alpha at the Vortex.
Puppeteer Justin LaVergne suits up to play the Chimponaut Alpha at the Vortex. (Photo by Matthew Irwin)

The Chimponauts and the Mechanical Phantom

The Vortex, 2307 Manor, 512/478-5282
Through May 18
Running Time: 1 hr.

The Chimponauts and the Mechanical Phantom is a silly show.

The multimedia, puppet-theatre production by Electronic Planet Ensemble fast-forwards to the year 2113. Earth's population has reached 10.5 billion, and "starvation is rampant," as a news report in the show's program explains.

The response is colonization of Genovia, a plan that elicits some controversy because "strange readings" suggest there may be life on the planet. Opposing evidence argues that Hex999 would be better, despite "strange magnetic frequencies" there.

Apparently ignoring the robotic space program that NASA developed back at the turn of the millennium, the powers-that-be send chimpanzee astronauts Alpha and Tinkles to explore Genovia aboard the vessel Pegasus I.

The Chimponauts are giant puppets played by Justin LaVergne and Olivia Warner. Their "training" for space travel doubles as the dressing-up period for the puppeteers, so the puppets come alive right in front of us, just as they come into consciousness, one might say, as astronauts.

Among the all-ages crowd last Sunday, the adults were eager to laugh, perhaps being more familiar with sci-fi B-movies – think Mystery Science Theater 3000 – while the kids sat wide-eyed and curious. It was the first time my teething 1-year-old had sat still all day.

A systems error sends the Pegasus off course, hurling the Chimponauts toward Hex999. What begins as a celebratory affair ends as a military operation, featuring all our favorite martial-law phenomena, including a media blackout and protesting activists, displayed on a giant screen behind the performance.

Meanwhile, a meteor threatens Genovia, where we meet the natives (small, pink, stuffed-sock puppets that jiggle back and forth to signify action and emotion) and the Mechanical Phantom (a cardboard puppet operated by Betsy McCann, Joanna Wright, Katherine Wilkinson, and Rebecca Goldstein) who delivers his monologues in song, in the vein of a South Park rock opera.

Parts of this exchange are hazy, as my kid started to squirm, but the Phantom eats the meteor, which may have been a terraforming body sent by Earth, and goes in search of more tasty goodness, while the Chimponauts land on Hex999 and engage in a pseudo-sexual commingling with the locals (played by the puppeteers for the Mechanical Phantom).

Will the Mechanical Phantom find Earth? Who are these Hex999ians? Can the Chimponaunts resist their magnetic powers?

The answers don't really matter. The narrative is just a container for some silly shit meant to make us laugh. It helps to understand the genre, because otherwise the Chimponauts are just people in costumes jumping around the stage ... which is also pretty funny.

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The Chimponauts and the Mechanical Phantom, Austin theatre, Electronic Planet Ensemble, Vortex, Melissa Vogt-Patterson, Chad Salvata

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