Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots does not dwell in outer space. This world-premiere musical at La Jolla Playhouse inhabits the inner sanctum of the human body in all its biological inscrutability. The robots against which beautiful Yoshimi Yasukawa wages war are not otherworldly (or even manmade) automatons, but cancerous blood cells threatening her life in a much more tangible sense. Yet tangibility would not seem the right word for this ambitious collaboration between The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne and Playhouse Director Emeritus Des McAnuff. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots’ affirmations of life’s and love’s fragility are easily within reach, yet they’re all but secondary in a production that is a dazzling visual frenzy with all the breadth and emotion of a Flaming Lips show at Coachella or Lollapalooza.
Make no mistake, and duly acknowledging McAnuff’s considerable creative contributions, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is a Flaming Lips spectacle, both in sight and sound. The only thing missing is Coyne’s signature arrival inside a plastic space bubble. That’s child’s play beside the technology of this show, which features jaw-dropping projections, puppetry and levitations, and an army of pink and white robot warriors -- some actors, some airborne manipulations, and one 17 feet high, towering over the stage like Gort in “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Robert Brill (scenic design), Basil Twist (puppet design), and Sean Nieuwenhuis (video and projection design) must be credited for so deftly realizing Coyne’s and McAnuff’s vision, and Steve Rankin’s fight direction is true video-game wizardry.
The Yoshimi score, too, is solid and evocative. The melodic and frequently haunting music draws not only from the 10-year-old “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” album, but from the Lips’ 1999 “The Soft Bulletin” and 2006’s “At War With the Mystics,” as well as newly written material. Its adaption to a stage production like this one feels seamless, though it certainly must have come with arduous effort and commitment.
It’s the Yoshimi story of a woman in crisis and in love, in spite of standout performances from Kimiko Glenn in the title role, and Paul Nolan and Nik Walker as the other two sides in her triangle, that waxes and wanes. The one-year time period from Yoshimi’s dire medical diagnosis to her ultimate fate is a relentless continuum of musical catharses and visual pyrotechnics (the ninja-like one-woman wars with the metaphorical robots being the most impressive). Yoshimi’s fight to survive hovers over all, whether in battle or from a hospital bed, but the accompanying love story lacks the same passion or cohesiveness, and the show’s energy is front-loaded into Act 1. The obvious and inevitable message of the musical’s finale, “Do You Realize?” is simpler than the arc of the show itself, which variously addresses more than just the great existential question.
By and large, though, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is exciting and bold, multisensory theater.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat