As far as Poetic Justice Project productions go, “Planet of Love” — with its purple aliens, prison inmates and pop songs by The Beatles — is on the lighthearted side.
“We’ve been doing these gripping prison dramas,” artistic director Deborah Tobola, who wrote “Planet of Love.” “I thought we needed a comedy.”
Based in Santa Maria, the Poetic Justice Project features formerly incarcerated actors with varying degrees of theater experience in original plays that examine issues such as crime, punishment and redemption. It’s the only theater company of its kind in California, Tobola said.
“Planet of Love” runs through June 17 at The Spot in Arroyo Grande before heading to Santa Barbara’s Center Stage Theater for a three-day run.
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“Planet of Love,” which premiered in 2004 at the California Men’s Colony, follows an alien Casanova whose amorous exploits get him booted off his home planet of Venus.
Although his commanding officers (Marci Jean Fambrini and Maux Samuel) tell him he’s headed for the afterlife, V-00711 (Cooper Wise) actually lands in the middle of a prison yard on Earth, which he mistakes for Heaven. Assuming the inmates are angels, he begins to change these hardened criminals through his healing touch.
“He has the power to transform people without even knowing it,” director Molly Williams Stuckey said, instilling them with a “childlike happiness.”
“It’s a funny story,” Wise said, “but underneath all the comedy, there’s a truth that love is a greater force than fear.”
The sizable cast includes Guillermo Willie as God, Jorge Manly Gil as yard show master-of-ceremonies Rico Starr, and Erica Lopez, Renee Lopez, Rebecca Mills, Launi “Bird” Platt and Caroline Taylor-Hitch as the Greek chorus-like Fallen Angels.
The inmates are played by Darren Deichen, Mark Krist Chris Hayward, Nico Hernandez, Nick Homick, Bo Richards and Guy Wicks. Whitney Eliott plays one of 7-11’s girlfriends, and Morry Talaugon is the Venusian commander’s ex-husband, known as the Taskmaster.
Coming on the heels of “Blue Train,” “Off the Hook” and “Women Behind the Walls,” “Planet of Love” is the Poetic Justice Project’s largest, most elaborate production to date — featuring costumes by Milly Benson, sets by Bo Richards and a soundtrack packed with familiar pop favorites. Mark Stuckey serves as music director, aided by Gil as stage manager.
“It’s a big leap in the Poetic Justice Project’s evolution as a blossoming theater program,” Wise explained.
Molly Williams Stuckey, who previously directed “Women Behind the Walls,” said she sought inspiration from Cirque du Soleil’s “The Beatles Love” and its “fun, funky, the-’70s-meet-the-future” vibe.
Although “Planet of Love” has faced some of the same issues as past Poetic Justice Project productions — last-minute replacements, scheduling conflicts and transportation problems — Stuckey said she’s been impressed by the cast’s willingness to rise to the occasion.
“It’s actually really nice to see them encourage each other help each other. I’ve seen a lot of growth,” she said. “Somehow they always manage to pull it off.”