The combination of comic books and theater is one rarely seen in modern day, and for good reason.The campy, tights-and-capes mentality of superheroes and the dramatic and realistic presentation of live theater make for a highly unstable mixture, so without a very careful hand, an entire production can fall apart. Sadly, the latest production of Weird City Theater, which has brought us amazing work with pieces such as Night of the Living Dead, Sherlock Holmes, and The Rivals, here suffers from this volatility, as the company, led by director Patti Neff-Tiven, tries to bring Sean McGrath’s independent comic, Giants in Those Days, to life on stage. The play seems well-intentioned, but falls apart due to a lack of budget, a lack of time, and an uneven cast.
The first act of the work unfolds more like a live comic reading than an actual play, with the actors providing voice-over and sound effects as we’re introduced to the play’s characters with actual comic panels projected on to a screen in the back of the stage. We’re given full stories of each of our main heroes in the play, which range from corny, to offensive, to genuinely interesting. The whole process is much akin to the Intergalactic Nemesis happening right down the road, only with less of a budget, and less polish. We are also occasionally given information in the form of very low-budget videos on the back screen, segments from the outside world that could not be translated to stage. Though some of them may help to further the plot, the grainy, camcorder style video more distracts from the action at hand than immerses us into the world.
The frame story for the play takes place in a kind of totalitarian theocracy, where having superpowers is punishable by death, and freedom is brought to its knees. This world is intriguing, and we wish that we could stay longer in this complex and innovative world, instead of traipsing through the same cartoon world full of spandex-clad do-gooders that we’ve seen a thousand times before. In this theocratic world, two children are kidnapped from off the street by a mysterious man known only as “Old Man”, and taken to an underground hideout. This hideout turns out to be a “tomb” for any remembrance of superheroes, and it is here that the tale that makes up the play is told.
With so much of Act 1 consisting of voice-overs and comic panels, it’s a relief when Act 2 comes along with real actors taking over the stage in something that could reasonably be called a “play”. Sadly, the production still never rises to high enough levels to make it worth the time and money. As each of the heroes take the stage, we’re reminded of why there are so few plays featuring comic book characters. Each comes to the stage with increasingly extravagant costumes, the ridiculousness of which makes taking them seriously very difficult. This would be of little concern if the play kept the same campy style throughout the entire work, but since the last scenes of the play journey into some serious and dark territory, the flamboyant outfits take away from some of the grander themes on display. The play tries to walk the fragile line between the campy and the dramatic, but it stumbles and falls into a cloying pit of tonal ambiguity, and it sadly never truly rights itself.
Despite the major faults, there are a few shimmering specks of gold shining through the dross. John Carrol, artistic director of Weird City and costume designer for the piece, seems to be having a grand day out every time he hits the stage as the Ring Leader, main villain in this piece, and the audience finds themselves waiting with bated breath for his next scene, cursing the fact that his time on stage is so brief. Also giving a shining performance is Xaq Webb, whose performance as the renegade gay psychic JD is truly chilling, who struts around the stage with smirking menace, his charisma overpowering every other actor on stage. We wish to ourselves that the writer had given more time to the development his character, and, indeed, most of the other characters in the play as well, as all ever seem to get we get are quick background stories for each one. Russell Minton also gives a performance to remember as Reverend Jason December, a looming presence who hovers over, and often into the audience, pressing on us the sins of being a superhero in quite a horrifying fashion. His rants and sermons often go on for much too long, one of which takes up a good fourth of the last act, but they represent some of the highlights of the piece. Let us also pray that young Christopher Newman gets some attention after this production, as he does some amazing work with the little he is given, and shows great promise for the future.
In the end, the story was just too big for just one play, especially one with such a low budget. You could tell there was passion in many of the performances, and that the company tried their best to be entertaining, but with major tonal confusion, uneven performances, and a serious lack of character development, this production is probably one that only real comic book buffs should check out, but leave your kids at home, since much of the material is for mature audiences only.
For those still interested, you can purchase tickets and get more info at Weird City Theater’s site at weirdcitytheatre.com