Monday, April 13, 2009

Flying high in spandex and heels

The "fierce" YouTube ad for Superheroine Monologues.

Sometimes it's nice not having to play the supervillain.

And I was nervous that might be the role I'd be forced into at the opening of The Superheroine Monologues (at Boston Playwrights' Theatre through April 26). My blogging buddy Art Hennessey and his wife Amanda were in it, and I'd worked at various times with one of its writers, Rick Park, and its director, Greg Maraio. I really wanted to like this show - but after its opening scene, when it seemed stuck at roughly the cruising altitude of the average Hasty Pudding theatrical, I was suddenly nervous that I was going to have to piss off a lot of people on Facebook.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. Superheroines suddenly soars in its first proper monologue (thank God, it's even the one with Amanda, as Lois Lane) and stays giddily aloft, powered by both camp and genuine wit, pretty much till its conclusion. To be cruelly honest, the show does have issues: it's about fifteen minutes too long, and it needs more of an arc. But it also has a charming grrl-power vibe, a few clever edges, some of the grooviest costumes ever seen in the Hub, and a purrrr-fectly fetching and talented cast. The crowd left in a bemused buzz, and there was definitely a note of discovery in the air: a potential franchise had just been born,and we were there at the beginning. Wow, as my friend said, this must have been what it was like the night they rioted in Paris after "Shear Madness!"

Well, maybe - only I think The Superheroine Monologues is a little hipper, and definitely more fun, at least once it gets past its somewhat-klutzy introduction on Paradise Island, the girls-only crib of Wonder Woman (Shawna O’Brien), who's the first superheroine to deploy her powers beyond its estrogen-soaked shores (since the world needs saving from the Nazis, dontchaknow). And after all, she reasons, how bad can men be? Well, the poor thing finds out, and the sisters who follow in her footsteps continue to struggle with many of her dilemmas. The show trots briskly through the decades, showcasing a spandex-clad heroine in each, before returning to Wonder Woman in a bittersweet conclusion, in which she has turned into her mother (literally) and wonders whether or not it was all worth it.

Now don't worry, it was. But I do wish co-writers Park and John Kuntz had managed somehow to actually develop this question through their eight-odd monologues. I have the inside scoop that the scenes were divvied up between the two, and thus, perhaps inevitably, thematic threads and throughlines sometimes are lost or broken over the course of the evening (but no, I'm not going to speculate on who did what). To be fair, this dynamic writing duo has managed to keep a surprising number of, um, dramatic balls in the air: they stoke the comic nerds with enough trivia to stock Newbury Comix, flatter the gays with what amounts to an ongoing drag show (only with real women, and without the bitter edge of Ryan Landry), and still keep the Comedy Central crowd's ribs thoroughly tickled. Perhaps it's too much to also ask that the script actually build on its themes; but hopefully, as the show is tweaked and polished, a bit more structure will find its way under all that spandex.

It shouldn't be that hard to do; there's already a rough (but unfocused) history of the post-war feminine self-image lurking among all the pop artifacts and in-jokes. Batgirl's self-control (from the 70's) seems almost a corrective to Catwoman's hallucinogenic abandon (from the 60's, natch), for instance - only not quite. As it is, we're still treated to four tight little vignettes, and four mildly amusing ones. Lois Lane's is by far the best (and Amanda Hennessy, at left with real-life husband Art, turns it into a tartly no-nonsense tour de force), but Catwoman, Supergirl and Phoenix all have their moments, and are alluringly impersonated by Elizabeth Brunette, Jackie McCoy and Christine Power. Wonder Woman, Batgirl and Storm are stuck with more meandering material, but Shawna O'Brien, Melissa Baroni and Cheryl D. Singleton generally make the most of it. And a special shout-out has to go to the three guys - Art Hennessey, Jordan Harrison, and Terrence P. Haddad - who serve these women in a mind-blowing variety of roles and (hilarious) costumes. They always have the good-natured charm of straight guys at a gay tea party, but sometimes unleash an energy of their own that's super-wacky - Harrison's turn as the Invisible Girl and Hennessey's impersonation of She-Hulk immediately come to mind. And in the end, kudos must go to Greg Maraio, director, costume designer, and perhaps the production's true begetter. He's obviously lavished his love on the project, and it shines through every super-tacky drop and over-the-top prop. If the show does make the jump to multi-city franchise, he and his writers (and cast) will have richly deserved whatever rewards come their way.

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