The Brick, a theater in a former garage in formerly industrial Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is a good vantage point from which to see lost civilizations passing and cultural worlds collide. These are concerns of comics and sci-fi too, and the surrounding area has seen a surreal historical fast-forward from working-class outland to hipster mecca.
The downwardly-mobile pursuit of independent arts production in a gentrifying metropolis links the newcomers with the economically imperiled old-timers, and no one wants culture higher or mightier than the street that people can meet each other on. The Brick sees the affinity between its resourceful shoestring productions and the affordable art form of comics, and for the second time (since 2011) is mounting a series of stage shows exploring the intersections between these populist forms of word and image and motion and melodrama.
The Comic Book Theater Festival runs from June 3rd–29th at The Brick.
Part One: Secret Identity Politics
Apropos of our “Crossovers” theme, the first shows that I saw at the festival portrayed uncomfortably overlapping communities and exchanged senses of self.
In El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom!!, New York-born Alex Nuñez has just been fired from a major comic company for pitching “too Puerto Rican” superhero El Coquí, named for a tropical frog and imbued with mystic powers based in a positively portrayed Santería. His brother (not Jose, but “Joe”) assimilates more energetically at his ad firm. Unlike Kal-El, Alex’s out-of-placeness is not his strength; taunted as “sorta-rican” by a high-school bully but too unnervingly ethnic for his former bosses, he wonders what’s real about his own life, let alone the fantasies he tries to escape into.
Still, it is the business-suited Joe who talks about their North American existence as “a costume” that he never feels quite fits. The brothers struggle with questions of responsibility and self-fulfillment as Joe tries to sign Alex up at his agency (for the nefarious plot of selling sugary soft drinks to the diabetes-prone community at the Puerto Rican Day Parade), and a local blog photographer snaps Alex’s delusional outings in his homemade superhero costume, encouraging him to become a neighborhood symbol of self-esteem.
The good-natured humor caries the narrative far (like Joe’s sketch of the parade as “the beer, the beads, the skittish cops, and the smell of pork”), as do some moving soliloquies, like the brothers’s mom’s reminiscence of their fallen NY cop father, a working-class guy who died for the society she and he moved to, but also “for a family that needed him as much as [she] did.”
Michael John Improta is energetic and endearing as Alex; Matt Barbot (also the playwright), centered and quietly hilarious as Joe; Victoria Gutierrez, thoughtful and charismatic as the online journalist, Yesica; Sandra Berrios, strong and sympathetic as Patricia, the mom; and a magnetically overstimulated Kervin Peralta steals the show in the dual roles of Alex’s high-school tormentor and his fantasized arch-foe, El Chupacabra.
The play’s epigram comes early, when Alex explains his strange costumed behavior to Yesica by saying of El Coquí, “I made him, and I wanted to see him, but since he didn’t exist, I had to be him.” Fantasy can be where we rehearse a self we can believe in.
(El Coquí will show again on June 15 and 27; for details and ticket information on this and other shows click here.)
Margins of perception and of social acceptance were explored in the adventures of No, YOU Tell It!: Legacy, an installment of a novel New York-based storytelling series in which pairs of readers workshop each other’s memoirs and hear them performed by their partner on NYTI’s bi-monthly stages.
For this special edition of the series, the textual theme of “Legacy” was chosen, and the storytellers also keyed their tales to an image of what could be two generations of superheroines drawn by emerging comic artist Sha-Nee Williams (who in turn created images based on the stories, which were displayed during the performance). All the readings told of transformations between former and future selves, as much as real and fantasy ones—the inheritors were each a wiser, more fortunate later version of a single person.
Fred Backus read Paige Blansfield’s “Origin Story,” in which the speaker is stuck in Clark Kent mode as the vassal of a demanding, irrational boss. She flashes back through a string of defeats—playground bullying, adult workplace exploitation—more like what a villain would reflect on in the world of comics. But in real life, the good guys and girls often lose. . .until she quits the job, another inversion of a superhero triumph narrative, and runs away to win another day. (This story was also novelly and successfully told as if we were reading the script-directions of a comic book—“I enter the full two-page spread of [the boss’s office] interior”—to surprisingly cohesive effect.)
Blansfield then read Backus’s “A Crossroad in Knock-Off City,” about his Team America-like former job as an actor hired by law enforcement to put on the costumes of various tourist types and smoke out bootleg merchandise sellers in the legendary bazaar of New York’s Canal Street. The fortress of intellectual property is of course a major concern for superhero publishers and other pop character mills, but here the quarry is the ’70s cop show spoils of high-end wristwatches and leather bags. Backus’s character finds himself helping to raid members of the very working class that superheroes and mythic detectives are supposed to protect, and his triumph, like Blansfield’s, comes in walking away.
In assuming each other’s identities, Backus gave a performance of great trembling empathy and emerging assurance as the first job wage-slave, while Blansfield brought steely voiceover crime drama charisma and subtle dawning morality to her reading.
In the show’s second half, E. James Ford and Nicole Greevy switched consciousnesses just as successfully, with Greevy giving gleaming confidence to Ford’s deceptively straightforward tale of a superhero’s farewell, and Ford bringing brimming thoughtful emotion to Greevy’s recent memoir of being a mom concerned for her son’s navigation of social standards.
Powers and spells wearing off are a persistent concern of the superhuman, and in Ford’s “League of Absence,” one such super-being is giving a parting speech to his comrades—hoping to stave off the evaporation of their very universe, which is built on a willed belief that men can fly and woman can bounce bullets off their bracelets. His first “team” dematerialized, their satellite HQ reverted back to a suburban garage, because, of course, the dreamworld of early adolescence gave way to cynicism; he’s been on “our” Earth all along, but is leaving his current perilous adventure of consensual fantasy (what else, indie theater) before it joins “[so] much of my life [that] would vanish if I stopped believing in it.” Comics, and existence, are no fun to overthink.
Greevy’s “Nerd: The Next Generation” was, aptly enough for the show’s theme, bookended by the description of two vivid static images: her husband, as a boy, photographed in an ill-fitting hunting jacket and holding a rifle—both thrust upon him by a dad who’d found him imitating Rita Moreno in his mother’s dress, and Greevy’s own son, asking to have his picture snapped in the Wonder Woman tiara that Greevy has broken down and bought him. The boy worships Wonder Woman, and Greevy is nervous about him living out the same nerdy ostracism she did in her own childhood as a D&D and Doctor Who fiend. But she comes to see those who don’t “fit” as the ones who show us how much room there can be for who we really are, and conjures one more mental photo, of the future she wants for her kid, at his prom—not the lineup of conformity it was for her, but a vision of him among peers costumed in a super-heroic array of their own idiosyncratic looks. And she snaps the image of the boy in his beloved Wonder Woman accessory. Sometimes to do what’s right, you have to take the shot.
(No, YOU Tell It! was conceived by Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons and is produced and directed (and sometimes co-performed) by her, Mike Dressel and Erika Marit Iverson. This segment was a Moth-like one-off, but dates for new shows and soundfiles of old ones can be found here.)
In Part Two next week: Criminal Elements
Festival poster art by R. Sikoryak.