Embracing the viral spiral
Frances Koncan’s moon-based send-up of TikTokery and influencers speaks to all generations
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Frances Koncan’s Space Girl is a story of firsts.
The narrative itself is centred on Lyra (Brynn Godenir), who, 21 lunar years ago, became the first person born on the moon. At 999 million followers, though it’s never clarified on which platform, she is inching ever closer to becoming the first to reach one billion. Her sphere of influence is as wide as that of a god.
But the show itself has achieved a few other notable firsts: in the 50-year history of Prairie Theatre Exchange, it is likely the first show whose plot hinges as much on understanding the history of colonialism, the story of Noah and Winnipeg pedestrian politics as it does comprehending the 1998 disaster film Armageddon.
It is the first show whose lingua franca is a hybrid of Shakespearean and RuPaulian prose. And it is likely the first show to feature an advisory in its program warning of non-tobacco vape use.
It is a bold, if at times messy, vision of a new frontier of theatre for and about a new generation, written by the sui-generational Koncan, that is simultaneously irreverent and intimidating. It is a self-mockery of TikTokery, and a thesis on viral memes, stretched into three dimensions.
To listen to the audience at the Cherry Karpyshin Mainstage during Thursday night’s world première was to hear a split reaction, with those on both sides of a generational divide laughing, but probably for different reasons.
When the show begins with Lyra waking up, getting dressed and then filming herself doing a fake version of that for her followers, the younger members of the crowd laugh at themselves, while the older members of the crowd lightly jab their children on the shoulder and say, “Look. It’s you!”
When Lyra (played with a decidedly gen-Z energy by the camera-ready Godenir) crashes her space pod, her first reaction isn’t to check her own vitals. She asks a question that forces all audience members, regardless of age, to ponder their own tendencies. “Where’s my phone?”
Indeed, at intermission of this show, directed without pretension by the prolific Krista Jackson, most audience members reach into their pockets to pull out their devices and check their texts, or the score of the game between the Winnipeg Jets and Boston Bruins, happening down the street at Canada Life Centre.
The cast of Space Girl is small but mighty. Godenir, a National Theatre School graduate who was only cast in the lead role a few months ago, has a monumental challenge: she hardly leaves the stage, and when she’s on, she’s performing for multiple audiences — those sitting in front of her, and those followers who are watching her feed. Throughout the production, Godenir actually holds her phone and livestreams herself to a projection screen behind her. As anyone who has ever tried to take a selfie can attest, it is an artform that requires complete understanding of angles and lighting, and Godenir makes it look easy.
Koncan’s inspiration for the show came in part from The Wizard of Oz, and it falls on Justin Otto to play the cowardly lion, the scarecrow, and the tin man to Godenir’s extra-terrestial Dorothy-Pocahontas hybrid. But in Space Girl, those classic characters are recontextualized. Otto, who clearly excels at comedic acting, must alternate throughout the show among five characters: an Australian ship named Chip, a space landlord named Nikolaj, a hockey bro who speaks like a thespian, a star actor-director from Boston, and a vape lord known as @Maxabillion, the Vanguard, or He Who Must Not Be Named, clad in a black sweater, blue jeans and a gold chain, referencing a viral Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson meme.
It’s a credit to Otto’s versatility that he keeps it all straight.
If there is one main criticism to be made of Space Girl, it would be that there is too much going on to understand what is being said, and which story is being told. But perhaps that is as much a criticism of our expectations as an audience for direct, easy-to-follow storytelling as it is of the play itself.
The genres — celebrity culture, social media, and schlocky science fiction — which Koncan attempts to skewer and so clearly reveres, are often maligned by “smart people” as intellectual detritus. But there is no question of their place at the centre of our culture. In the right hands, those genres can become a mirror of society and its ails. There are several points where the characters in Space Girl break the fourth wall to acknowledge the audience’s deteriorating attention span. “I told you this was going to be important,” one of Otto’s characters says, gesturing toward a handheld prop.
Speaking of the props, the crew went above and beyond in the physical representations at the heart of the show. Andy Moro, with assistance from Hailey Verbonac, designed the chelonian lunar base where Lyra is born and raised, consisting of three circular daises connected to a central node, which at its nucleus holds an ever-changing box. Thirteen mirrors surround the stage, pointing toward Lyra.
The pair also designed the video projections, which evoke feelings of lightness and heaviness as Lyra explores the parallax scroll of the universe.
MJ Dandeneau’s sound design is quick and restrained, and on a small theatre budget, is reminiscent of stereotypical cinematic sci-fi experiences. Costume designer Joseph Abetria playfully engages with 60 years of wild sci-fi clothing, landing somewhere between Logan’s Run and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
At first blush, it may seem that Koncan’s script dances around the conversation of colonialism central to the show, but upon further inspection, that conversation is present all along. It just takes some work to see it hiding behind the laughter.
When a new baby is born on the moon, Lyra, who was the first person born on that land, is pissed off. She was there first, born after a farmer from St. Andrews flew a hot-air balloon to the moon. When the new baby arrives, she almost immediately surpasses Lyra’s follower count.
This is played for laughs, and it is funny — Lyra essentially says to the baby, “I could kill you, but I won’t.” But beneath the joke is a subtle critique of colonialism and an assertion of Indigenous land rights and the realized threat posed by contact.
No, none of this is exactly obvious, but Koncan probably doesn’t want it to be. The Anishinaabe-Slovene playwright wants the audience to laugh first, and think later.
And after thinking about it a bit longer, Space Girl is a vibe, bestie.
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Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.