Esther Windt, Zach Ulmer, Amelia Fiswcher, Max Robnett, Jo E. Vasquez, and Calvin Vo in Spaceworms

Spaceworms, now playing at the St. Ambrose University Studio Theatre, is Haus of Ruckus’s latest foray into exotic locales, obscure pop culture references, and puppetry. Directed by T. Green, the Haus’s newest is a delight for those obsessed with sci-fi pop culture and unfamiliar with the oeuvre of the company.

Here, roommates and best friends Johnny (Calvin Vo) and Fungus (T Green) are going about their typically atypical lives when Johnny invites Fungus to watch his favorite childhood movie. He claims that he’s based his entire personality around Spaceworms, yet can’t recall a single thing about it. After watching the film, they agree that it’s irredeemably awful, and needing to vent, Johnny posts a scathing review on Letterbox, where he gives the film 0/10 stars. Yet deep in space, the real-life spaceworms who made the movie – they weren’t CGI or pink socks operated by people in black clothing, but actual spaceworms – see the review and take it personally. To get revenge, the worms kidnap the quirky duo and hilarity ensues. Oh, and a couple of Mystery Science Theater 3000 wannabes (David Weaver and Keenen Wilson) sit in the audience and lob the softest of heckles during scene transitions.

The ensemble is filled out by Haus regulars and some newcomers from St. Ambrose. Max Robnett, Zach Ulmer, Amelia Fischer, Jo Vasquez, and Esther Windt play the titular worms, among some other roles. Sarah Goodall appears as a non-binary space deity, and Beckett Conwell operates Harry, one of Vo’s best puppets so far. The pop-culture references come a mile a minute: Star Wars, Star Trek, MST3K, David Bowie, David Byrne, and plenty more I’m sure I’m forgetting. I’d say I’m leaving things there so as not to spoil the show, but truthfully, there isn’t much more beyond what I’ve outlined so far. Johnny and Fungus are in space, and there are jokes. (More on those later.)

Esther Windt, T. Green, and Calvin Vo in Spaceworms

As usual, the performers here are splendid. Spaceworms might be the most puppet-intensive show the Haus has done to date, and I want to give kudos to the cast for imbuing all of their creations with authentic life. Operating a puppet is no joke (no pun intended), and everyone here is up to the task. In particular, Fischer practically runs away with the whole show by making her spaceworm Terry amazingly expressive.

Also as usual, the comedy's technical elements are impressive. With some striking lighting design by Aaron Hook, meticulous sound/projection/puppet design by Vo, and appropriately retro set design by Matt Elliott, the world of Spaceworms leaps off the stage.

Everything here is technically very proficient: the lights, sound, costuming, puppetry, projections, acting … . Everything save the writing. It felt like the entire script was thrown together in the short few weeks since their last production Punk Rock Lobster. Not only does the overall show feel unnecessarily confined by the Haus Formula, but the individual jokes themselves feel aggressively formulaic. Character A says something goofy or impossible. Character B acknowledges that the thing Character A just said is goofy or impossible. A short beat. Character A says, “Oh yeah, I guess you’re right.” It’s funny the first time, maybe. By the 30th time I heard the same setup/punchline routine, it wasn't.

T. Green and Calvin Vo in Spaceworms

And I struggle with my next criticism, as I think shows should be reviewed based on their individual qualities. But the blessing and curse of art is that you cannot create or experience it in a vacuum. And I suspect that had this been my first Haus show, I would have loved it. Yet it wasn’t, and I didn’t. I’ve attended five Haus productions (and was even fortunate enough to perform in one), but it now feels like the sixth time I’ve seen the same show. Increasingly, it feels like Vo and Green land on a goofy setting for their comedies, and then work their way backward from there, results or viability be damned.

Even Spaceworms' dramatic moments have become predictable. Prior to attending Saturday’s opening-night performance I jotted down in my notebook “a puppet will die, be resurrected moments later” … and wouldn’t you know it? I was right! Because it’s a Haus of Ruckus comedy, it apparently must follow that nothing really matters. And it’s fine if there are no stakes because it’s “only” a comedy – but the same unearned beat of emotional manipulation also grows tiresome after seeing it three or four times. It’s a bummer to see a company that exclusively does new works paint themselves into such a tiny comfort zone.

The irony of the' action here being initiated by a snarky review that someone posts online is not lost on me. And unlike Johnny, I’m not going to give Spaceworms 0/10 stars. In fact, I recommend it! Provided, that is, that it’s your first time attending the Haus of Ruckus. Their production values are remarkable and the show will be unlike anything you’ve seen before. But if you have attended any Haus show in the past? That’s up to you if you want to see the same old, same old.


Spaceworms runs at St. Ambrose University's Black Box Theatre in the Galvin Fine Arts Center (2101 North Gaines Street, Davenport IA) through March 12, and more information and tickets are available by calling (563)333-6251 and visiting and Haus of Ruckus' Facebook page.

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