Captain Ko and the Planet of Rice sets its audience a puzzle. It is a triptych of short, almost entirely distinct pieces, each with its own style, that seem hazily connected. The challenge is to work out why.
Theatrical triptychs are curious things. In visual art three component parts form a whole; they exist side by side and can be compared in the moment of viewing. In theatre, they take place one after another, usually in a specific order, such that each informs the next and makes you re-evaluate what came before. Captain Ko… does this beautifully; it starts entirely in metaphor and provides the information needed to decode it later on. Three things recur: teacups, flying saucers and time warps.
It starts with a wryly-observed pastiche of a 1970s sci-fi show, in which Captain Jane Ko (Valentina Ceschi) and her sidekick Spark (Thomas Eccleshare) explore a distant world. We get a theme tune and catchphrases, cotton-blue spacesuits and cutesy phazers. The Planet of Rice disrupts their equipment and distorts the usual laws of time and space. Moments start to repeat themselves, confusing the Captain, and the narrative gains an unexpectedly melancholic edge: ‘What the future holds, we don’t know,’ Ko announces, with a pioneer’s puffed chest, ‘but rest assured we are not afraid of it.’
This gives way to Ceschi’s mime solo in which an old woman – a very different type of future – makes a cup of tea, circling the kitchen opening drawers to creaks and fiddling cutlery to tinkles. Like Ko, she gets stuck on repeat, piling up cups on the table, before reality starts to shuffle with fantasy. A drawer opens with a horse’s neigh. Another contains a gun. Synapses short circuit, until an alien approaches and offers a kindly, comforting hug. It’s a truly touching moment, as terrifying as it is tender.
Third comes Sergei Avedyev, a Russian cosmonaut who spent 747 days in orbit and, as contact dwindled while the USSR disintegrated below him, slowly lost track of time. His capsule becomes a world of its own. It’s both thought-bubble and, given his child-like dependence on those back on earth, a womb.
Both Dancing Brick’s commitment to the triptych form and their faith in audiences is really admirable, but the connecting the three threads is its own reward. There’s little added nuance beyond the understanding of dementia in terms of the Planet of Rice, where one’s own world becomes an unpinnable alien realm. Inventively staged though it is, albeit narrating what it might have shown, the third segment repeats rather than develops the central thought.
The main problem, however, is that Dancing Brick’s dedication to their ideas at times allows the theatre to fall out. It’s the second mime sequence that does it. It may provide a lull in time to fit the content, but it’s twice as long as it needs be. By the time we’re out the other side and into the third segment, Dancing Brick have come too close to losing us entirely. It could dearly use an additional layer of self-awareness to poke fun at its own theatrical fixity and avoid the semblance of technical exercise.
The whole is undoubtedly considered, momentarily devastating and fleetingly funny. It just forgets the need to engage in its desire to perplex.