Sunday, March 18, 2007

PLAY: "Men of Steel"

"You'll never get rid of us, we're like a bad smell that won't go away. And that smell, Menace, that smell is America!" Ah, cheesy lines like that remind me of what made me fall in love with comics in the first place. Over the years, the stories have gotten darker, and the narratives more interesting, but it all comes down to betrayal and courage, iced over with a healthy gloss of bad puns and even worse quips. Qui Nguyen knows what makes the comic-book world tick: his new play, Men of Steel, is both homage and parody at the same time, and it's a wonderful romp. Atop the surprisingly effective writing, his production company (Vampire Cowboy Theatre) is good with fight choreography, so there's over-the-top action to go with the over-the-top acting.

All in all, it's a fun night of theater: the first act introduces the fall from grace of three different heroes, split up into chapters and paced like the television show Heroes, and the second act unites them all in one final battle for redemption. There's betrayal, there's excitement -- there's even a bit of noir in "Chapter One: Maelstrom," a tragedy amid all the laughs in "Chapter Three: The Tragic Story of Bryant," and a stop-motion-animated showdown using Lego characters and some of the most hysterical voice-overs outside of Adult Swim.

Robert Ross Parker does an excellent job with the direction of this show, using video montages to cover up the set changes, and stagecraft to cut from moment to moment within each piece. Chapter One has Maelstrom literally pivoting from one encounter into his role as narrator, (a fast-paced way to introduce a saga), and Chapter Three reduces the action to a small neon-lit box. Some scenes overlap on stage, others remind us of the lingering evil off in the corner: it raises the stakes beyond the singular panel and onto the entire page. Chapter Two is the slow point of Men of Steel, but that has to do as much with the writing and acting as anything else: it is monotonous and loud, and hurls past with little to do but laugh at the Lucha Libre costumes of two wannabes. It's okay: there are enough jokes to keep the pace up, and because of the triple-casting of most characters, Paco Tolson is able to shine as The Mole, and Noshir Dalal as Daddy, rather than getting locked into their mediocre performances there as Damon and Lukas.

Give in to your superhero complex and check out Men of Steel; it has a few weaknesses (like any true hero) here and there, but on the whole, it's a mighty fine new play. Is Maelstrom (in Batman mode) a hero, or just a crazed vigilante? Is Captain Justice a murdering supervillain or a man with superpowers? Find out right now in this week's performances of Men of Steel!

[First posted to New Theater Corps, 3/18]