The far-out new production “Wild Women of Planet Wongo” is not of the traditional theater world. In this kitschy, retro-inspired musical comedy, opening June 8 at the Chopin Theater in Wicker Park, there are no seats and there is no stage, allowing audience members an incredibly immersive experience that makes them one with the improvisational cast.
‘WILD WOMEN OF PLANET WONGO’ When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday; 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Saturday; through July 14 Where: Chopin Theater, 1543 W. Division Tickets: $20-$40 Information: planetwongo.com
“Personally I’m a huge fan of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show,’ ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ and ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000,’ and that certainly provided a lot of inspiration for this show,” says producer and co-writer Dave Ogrin, a New York-based creative who cut his teeth in the music business as a sound and mixing engineer for hip-hop elite like the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Run-DMC and Grandmaster Flash before turning to musicals as a career venture as the recording industry began to change.
Ogrin makes his debut in Chicago with “Wongo,” which is not unlike a B-52’s music-video-meets-Escape-Room. Based on ‘60s sci-fi B movies, the plot focuses on a planet inhabited by warrior Amazonian women and their fierce queen who have never encountered men until two oafish astronauts invade Wongo — convinced they have found their own version of paradise. “Except the women of Wongo have plans for the men they didn’t anticipate,” Ogrin chides. “By the end, the takeaway is that people have more in common than their differences. Though we kind of spoof the ‘60s gender stereotypes, the idea is showing that Planet Wongo evolves just like we have as a society, too.”
The three-act play has two intermissions filled with games, dancing and prizes — even more if you come dressed in character, donning Planet Wongo’s green and purple colors. Chopin’s bar will also have a signature “Wongotini” cocktail throughout the run that wraps on July 14.
The current iteration of “Wild Women of Planet Wongo” is a far cry from its original state, which took a traditional musical format. Ogrin and his team — including fellow writers Ben Budick and Steve Mackes and director David Rigano, who had the chance to hone their skills at the esteemed Eugene O’Neill Theater Center — originally formulated the idea several years ago for a black box theater festival at the University of Michigan. From there it moved to New York City, where it was performed at the Ensemble Studio Theater and eventually premiered at the New York Musical Theatre Festival before finding a home at the Red Bar Theater in Key West, Florida.
“Wongo” sat dormant for a while before Ogrin had the idea to entirely reconceive it after taking a chance encounter at the ever clever “Sleep No More” in New York, a zany promenade theater-style production that allows guests to travel through different theatrical rooms for various acts that waver from the hypnotic to the disturbed.
“After seeing that production, I thought this could be Wongo,” says Ogrin. With the same team in place, they rewrote it and made it more interactive, with Ogrin opting to produce the show himself for the first time. It received rave reviews for its run at the Parkside Lounge in New York City, which was originally supposed to take place over a three-month term but expanded to 10 months due to demand.
“We definitely have had a lot of repeat people, and started growing our little fan base,” Ogrin admits, getting closer to his “Rocky Horror” dream. The show even has its own take on the “Time Warp” song and dance. Ogrin says the show is for everyone (audience members as young as 16 are welcome to attend, with the exception of the Saturday 10:30 p.m. show, which is strictly 21-and-over).
“We get a lot of younger people for the sort of party atmosphere. But then there are also a lot of older sci-fi geeks that remember the ‘60s and the decade’s music.”
For the Chicago production, Ogrin opted to use an entirely local cast and crew — even down to the wig makers. Actors include Jen Connor (Queen Rita), most recently seen in the role of Adele Dazeem in the Chicago premiere of “Wicked Frozen,” as well as The Goodman and Chicago Dramatists alum Sabrina Harms (Annette), among others.
“I didn’t know for a fact that Chicago would have the people that I needed like I had in New York, and I was very pleasantly surprised. Chicago really has amazing people here that helped me put together this show,” says Ogrin. “We couldn’t ask for better people.”
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.