By Ian Rigg
Laugh Out Loud Theater: the final frontier. These are the voyages of Trump in Space: An Epic Sci-Fi Romantic Musical Comedy, a screwball satire set in a place big enough for all that ego to infinitely expand: the endless void of the universe. (Hey, he always wanted to be a star!)
Its five-week mission: to entertain strange new audiences. To get blind drunk on a Saturday night. To boldly go where no parody has gone before.
There are a small handful of moments that glimmer like a gold-plated toilet in this Star Trek/Star Wars/Battlestar Galactica/Fire & Fury musical mashup, but audience members sold on the show they imagine from its name alone are in for a huuuuuge bummer: the show doesn’t actually include the Don of Mar-a-Lago at all (at least not in a literalized way).
Instead, the cosmic capers commence four centuries in the future, as two factions vie to claim humanity’s new home of Polaris IV after a nuclear apocalypse: a rebel blue faction of ineffective liberals facing off against the United States of Commerce fleet (who vow “opportunity at all costs”) led by Donnie’s distant descendant Natasha Trump and a hooded, red-tied Executive.
Setting the show 400 years from now allows for a clearer lens on the present by virtue of juxtaposition, allowing the writers to extrapolate how far things could polarize: however, this separation also takes some of the edge off the satire. In an hour of well-choreographed and rapid-fire nonsense, the show seems to say that stupidity is generational, but maybe someday some brave, deconditioned descendants will break the cycle. And hey, maybe BOTH sides are crazy and wrong, and maybe we both just need to listen.
But the show’s message doesn’t really land: pot-shots get taken at both parties’ quirks and shortcomings, but it doesn’t really scan as equal blame when one side wants to talk about feelings and form a “trust tree”, and the other has literally within the canon of the show destroyed the Earth with nuclear weapons (and seems increasingly on course to do the same in the real world).
Stranger still are the tone shifts. While the show ostensibly strives to be a late-night gonzo comedy, it actually tries to be serious and dramatic for many of its scenes, and nearly all of its songs. If it’s meant to have heart, it comes out hollow due to inconsistent and abrupt execution: none of it feels particularly earned. Much like the man on whom it’s based, Trump In Space’s gravitas seems to take for granted that it will be perceived as gold, without having to do the work.
But of course the real goal is to take the horrors, and turn them to humor. Unlike its namesake, Trump in Space is certainly not without merit. Funnily enough, the show is at its funniest when it’s NOT obliquely referencing or riffing on Trump. The truest laughs come not from the lazy references or worn-out drive-by quotes — the show’s style of comedy often resorts to having characters blurt out well-trod lines like “but her emails” — but from the interpersonal relationships. Glib and well-crafted character moments with implied history, like an android desperately trying to connect to his coworker by mentioning the 5 small Christmas gifts he bought him, or two women sharing an awkward would-be heart to heart in the elevator.
And when it comes time to play in the fun and fertile playground of the tropes a starship adventure has to offer, director John Hildreth boldly goes. He comes from 30 years of improv experience, and indeed the whole show feels like a long-form improv not only in tone but in execution. Delightfully, there are no props involved at all: communicators are handled with the actors saying ‘ble-le-loop’ before speaking into their chest piece, doors are deployed with a ‘woosh’ sound effect, and freeze rays are just a clever game of freeze tag.
There are some standout performances too, like Ross Compton’s complete commitment to the cyborg Kushner, playing it like Star Trek’s Data meets Buster from Arrested Development. Alaina Hoffman’s Natasha Trump has levels and nuanced comedic delivery, in spite of material beneath her skill. The same can be said of the rest of the cast, who work very well together, carrying out the moves and beats with swift cohesion, and clearly having a good time.
Choreographer Emily Brantz (pulling triple duty with acting and designing the delightfully, deliberately low-budget costumes) gets creative and turns limitations into strengths with numbers like “Engines Full”, an actually sincere and sweet song where the fun Niki Aquino’s Lieutenant Haley is given temporary command. In a sequence that may be the show’s highlight, the cast morphs into the bridge and ship itself, an emblem of what we could be if only we work together.
Audiences are advised to get through this amusing but unevenly written romp the same way they do the actual Trump regime: with copious amounts of alcohol, in the company of their best friends. Because that’s how we fill the void of space, or defeat a right-wing regime: with laughter and love.
Laugh Out Loud Theater presents “Trump in Space” through Sept. 28 at 3851 N Lincoln Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.