Since the advent of the “real life superhero” and, yes, “supervillain” phenomenon, theater has been inundated with the foibles of characters who spend part of their time masked and in tights. This theatrical craze reached both its zenith and its nadir in the hoopla surrounding the misbegotten Spiderman musical on Broadway; beyond the confines of the Great White Way, productions have often been as dispiriting as they have been ubiquitous.
The problem, typically, is that somebody somewhere along the way, whether it is the playwright or the director or someone on the production team, does not take the material seriously; and so we end up with limp pastiches that are rarely more than weakly written sketches or domestic dramas with particularly revealing costumes, and the superheroes are nothing more than kooky characters whose powers (should they be real in the world of the individual plays) are used to mask any real character development that could take place (“this is supposed to be a comic book, and who wants to see dramatic momentum?”) or are merely excuses to extend some gags. In a world where comics are finally beginning to be taken seriously as a form of literature, theater seems stuck in Joel Schumacher mode–it’s enough to send folks who appreciate comic books, whether superhero or not (a group your correspondent considers himself a part of), more than halfway to becoming theatrical J. Jonah Jamesons.
Annex Theatre’s Team of Heroes series is both an attempt to cash in on the phenomenon, and an attempt to do something more with the people-in-tights genre than had been attempted previously. As a cash in, it has been extremely successful; 2010’s Alecto #1 was a sellout success, whether this was due to the then burgeoning fixation on real world people becoming masked vigilantes remains to be seen. Whatever the reason, the play proved so popular, the original team were given the greenlight to create more plays set in that universe. Their current production, Team of Heroes: Behind Closed Doors, is a prequel that portrays events that lead directly to the beginning of the first play–and it seems to be catching on with current audiences, so far.
As an attempt to be more than your average comic-book-on-stage, it fails more often than it succeeds. Let’s qualify this a bit before moving on to matters that concern the discerning: if any of the references to comic books and the entertainments derived from them that are littered sporadically in this critique have so far flown over your head, you might enjoy this show. If you believe that comic books can be nothing more than frivolous wastes of time, you might enjoy this show. If you think that the Adam West Batman TV show is the ultimate representation of that character, you might enjoy this show.
Let’s be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of the above, and there is no reason not to go and watch TOH and enjoy it unreservedly. Team of Heroes features an entirely toothsome, delicious and talented cast (there is something for everyone to delight in) having fun on stage. While this production isn’t as special effects laden as the previous effort, it does feature a decent number of set pieces tightly directed by Jaime Roberts; the piece can zip and zoom at a good clip for portions of the running time. That said, if story matters to you, if you believe that comic books are more than joke and beef-/cheesecake delivery machines, that they can have depth, then things get a bit murkier.
This is made all the more frustrating for the things it does get right. Here’s the set up: The Company has created a serum that gives whoever receives it superpowers that are unique to that individual. As a result, The Company has given The Captain (Jason Sharp) superhuman strength, Madame Mayhem (Tracy Leigh) telekinesis, Miss Dixie (Danielle Daggerty) the ability to control other human beings and Shock Wave (Nik Doner) the ability to control energy waves. The Company has hired this team of heroes mostly for its public relations arm, and uses their heroics in order to better enable their employees to shill for consumer products. It has hired Melody Knox (Angela DiMarco) in order to manage and control this set of egos, a job made more difficult by the teams infighting and general disruptive natures.
As with Alecto, Team of Heroes contains intriguing pockets of darkness surrounding its characters. In this instance, there are clouds hanging over Black Swallow (Jana Hutchison) and Ace Johnson (Ashley Bagwell), a relationship that’s seen in flashback; as a result, clouds hang over present day Madame Mayhem and Miss Dixie, their respective daughters–these clouds extend further onto Shock Wave.
The scenes detailing these quasi-disturbing circumstances are fascinating, but any weight or momentum they might gain are quickly dispersed by a combination of bizarre tonal shifts into pop-culture-reference-heavy humor; a basic misunderstanding of the difference between the comics page and stage craft; and a belief that merely presenting the darkness on the stage is enough for storytelling purposes. The entire series is under the impression that someone saying “let’s get a New Coke” is a punchline that’s just as hilarious as an ad spoof–and there are tons of ad spoofs here. Alecto had a spoof of the Volkswagen “Sunny Afternoon” ad; Team of Heroes has one for Trapper Keepers, and a version of the “Mac v. PC” ads, both very topical targets for hilarity; the main difference between these spoofs and their real world counterparts? The people are replaced by someone in a costume; no other work was done to elevate the spoof to a parody. This may result in the easy guffaw of recognition, but does not inspire heartfelt, hard-earned, from-the-gut laughter.
It’d be one thing if these spoofs were projected onto the screen and used to ease the transition from one scene to the next; instead, they are done live, creating additional scene changes, which can sometimes take a while to complete in order to accomodate the set up for special effects. The effects themselves are generally worth it, but the downtime helps to sustain the feeling that momentum is being killed by inertia; it forces the audience to either sustain good will or dwell in a dark rumination depending on the mood of the scene prior to the set change. There are ways this could be addressed, but first it must be understood that the scene change blackout does not function like the gutter (the space between comic book panels where leaps in narrative action can take place) in a set of sequential images.
Most of this could be forgiven had there been a point to be made from the shenanigans. This is not so, however, a fact made clear by the series’ distinct lack of a clear villain. Ostensibly, that role is fulfilled by Chaos Theory (Rachel Jackson) and her henchman, but she is used as another joke delivery vehicle, so any threat she poses is immediately laughed away. The role of her henchman could be both more effective and humorous, if it were taken remotely seriously. She does, however, serve as a link to the possible real antagonist in all of this, The Company. It was revealed in Alecto that The Company is funding not only the Team of Heroes, but also all of their supervillains; Melody Knox is often tasked with not only setting up the villains’ acts of terrorism, but also with disposing of any evidence that could spill back to them.
The only question is why? Why has it created the heroes and the villains, to what end? Is it simply for the avarice and publicity, or are there bigger ulterior motives? Perhaps the answers are coming in the rumored third play in the series, but after two productions, they remain an unclear and unfocused antagonist, enough to suggest that maybe the writer doesn’t have an agenda for them, making them convenient villains at the very least, and those are always wasted opportunities.
The better aspects of this series suggest that playwright Alex Harris has had good intentions all along. It would seem Harris has been aiming for Joss Whedon’s epic storytelling, by way of Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns mixed in with the humor of Mark Millar’s Kick Ass. Unfortunately, underdeveloped plotting, easy sophomoric laughs, lack of storytelling conviction and cohesion has landed his project closer to Miller’s All Star Batman and the pointless nihilism of Millar’s Wanted.
The series is full of ambition, it has stellar production values, a game and talented cast working hard to keep the proceedings funny, while showing a plethora of inspired moments; it lacks the discipline to pursue that potential to complete fruition, thus far.
Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00p.m.; through May 19 (additional performance on May 14) // Annex Theatre, 1100 East Pike Street // $10 – $15, (Thursdays are PWYC)