Wayne Coyne is one whimsical rascal.
The news-humping opportunist in me would try to tell you that the La Jolla Theater’s production of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is a lot like bringing a disarmed grenade into an airport. If you know anything about The Flaming Lips, you would know that most things they do could be adequately compared to bringing a disarmed grenade into an airport. It’s profoundly reckless, it requires a total absence of forethought, it both scares and enthralls a great number of people, and ultimately it’s something you laugh about years down the line. That, and Wayne Coyne of the flaming lips actually brought a motherfucking disarmed grenade to a motherfucking airport. But a career writing powerfully honest songs about love and death is not like bringing a grenade into an airport--unless perhaps you’ve murdered your significant others, but this production isn’t about that either. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is not the bombastic color-diarrhea blowout you might expect, it’s actually a quirky, abstract meditation on the things that we can’t stop thinking about.
The album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots arrived in 2002. It had a very loose concept, one that didn’t stretch far beyond some girl named Yoshimi taking vitamins to fight pink robots. There were also a lot of songs about the inevitability of death, something that stood in weird contrast to the goofy karate sounds. The production stretches out those melancholy themes and kitschy tones into a collected narrative. Our hero, Yoshimi, is diagnosed with cancer. The pink robots are casted as cancer cells. Two men, a dorky dude in a fedora and a black guy with a much better voice, fight for her affection. Most of this is transferred to the audience without a scrap of dialogue. Outside of a few contextual paragraphs, these characters spend the entirety of their time on stage singing Flaming Lips songs.
There are vibrant dance scenes of woven, ninja-lite nurses taking on the pink robots, and there are solemn, quiet moments of a girl suffering from melanoma lying in her hospital bed. This is not a happy story; in fact it’s not even an unrealistic story. The Flaming Lips have turned perhaps their biggest pop success into a play about caring for someone who isn’t well. This seems like a strange endeavor, but somehow everything clicks. At times it seems like Wayne Coyne’s entire songwriting career was intended as a framework for this sort of story. “Race For the Prize” is shaded with two scientists partnering up, struggling to come up with a suitable treatment for their dying patient. “Suddenly Everything Has Changed” is sung by Yoshimi’s parents, as they contemplate the tenuous place of their daughter’s life. Even “Sympathy 3000-21,” one of the dorkiest songs ever written, comes off remarkably tender.
I won’t spoil anything, but I will say the last song performed is “Do You Realize??” At which point my mom, my sister, and my dad started crying, and perhaps watching more than half your family break down in tears at the conclusion of a pop-derived musical is sort of like bringing a disarmed grenade into an airport. But it says something about Yoshimi, and the Flaming Lips in general, that they can take you from such immaculate sci-fi heights, while still getting real at the end. This is a musical that used karate to fight off hypothetical cancer cells in several pitch-black fantasy sequences. At one point the two lead characters get high and the couch they’re sitting on levitates several feet into the sky. These are very silly things, but they’re played with such honesty that when things swing back around and we’re asked to ruminate hard on the unavoidable folly of our existence, it doesn’t feel out of place. We realize that life moves fast, it’s hard to make the good things last. Yoshimi tells us that our consciousness is worth both celebrating and understanding, and it articulates those obvious sentiments better than you might ever expect. I left the theater, and I thought about being alive.