Fort Worth — After a weekend of washouts, Hip Pocket Theatre finally got a Sunday night dry enough to open its 41st season with Johnny Simons’ Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, a tribute to the scenery-chewing (and delightfully cheesy) science-fiction comic strips and movie serials of the 1930s.
A do-or-die opening night audience, spattered with mud and keeping an eye on the skies, settled into HPT’s open-air theater and got just what it came for: a night of kicked-back, funky fun, and a stage full of space babes, ray gun totin’ dudes, and one bottle-blond hero setting off to battle the baddies and save the Earth…and maybe the universe.
Ah…it’s summer, and Hip Pocket’s back.
Simons has dipped into science fiction numerous times over the company’s 40-plus years, but Flash Gordon feels somehow like a promise kept, a boyhood memory brought to life. Floating on songs (“Ticket to the Moon,” “Hold on Tight to Your Dreams”) and classical riffs from the legendary Electric Light Orchestra, Simons’ saga is told in “Chapters!” like a real Saturday serial. It chronicles the long conflict between polo-playing, All-American Flash (James Warila) and Ming the Merciless (Michael Joe Goggans), despotic ruler of the planet Mongo—which, inconveniently, seems to be on a collision course with Earth.
Conveniently, Flash knows Dr. Zarkov (Thad Isbell), a slightly mad scientist with a rocket—and it might get them to Mongo. “Are you sure this thing will work?” asks Dale Arden (Elysia Worcester), the girl Flash adores. “I’ve experimented with models,” says Zarkov—and off they zoom.
On Mongo, Flash & Co. battle double-decker monsters, Ming’s minions, Lion Men and winged Hawkmen who caw…a lot. Ming captures them now and again; his gutsy daughter Aura (Rebo Hill in leg-baring gold lame), helps them escape. They pick up a local friend, Thun (Jeffrey Stanfield), prince of the Lion Men, who helps on their adventures. Three Queens of the Universe (Peggy Bott Kirby, Kristi Ramos Toler, Jasmine Marie West) who introduce the chapters and exhort Flash to keep trying. There’s a mysterious moon lady (Julie Bellew) who may have a part to play. And in Simon’s adaptation, Ming the Merciless has a mother, Lady Ming (Dena Phillips). A mom? We do not recall that Ming had a Mom—but her presence certainly shrinks the Big Man down to a whiny boy.
Director Simon’s core group is especially strong here, and the actors absolutely sell this quirky throwback production. Even their body movements—Flash’s fancy punching style, Ming’s “ee-vile” raging, Aura’s clenched-fist pose as she glares at her father—look like a comic strip. And from time to time, a projection screen onstage mimics the live action by playing the corresponding scene from the Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serials. Most important of all, everyone plays it straight…which of course makes the thing funnier still.
The usual big HPT ensemble carries lots of the action, sometimes literally: darling little hand-crafted rocket ships dance through space; ray guns are powered, apparently, by raspberries blown by the warriors who carry them. (Twilight neighborhood games sprang to mind: “You’re dead, I shot you!...No, you missed by a mile!”) Creative costumes and accessories delight the eye: shredded cape monster bodies, crested helmets, tiny planets made of whirling light.
We won’t say much more about the plot—it really just needs to flow in one ear and out the other, and that’s fine. There are a few jabs at Earth’s own troublesome “tyrants” and a final dance that ties things up in a bow…until next Saturday, of course, when Ming (or some other villain) will need to be fought again.