Review of The Superhero and his Charming Wife on stage at the Highways Performance Space @ 18th Street St. Arts Center.
Interpretative dance, moving platforms with gymnastics, video backgrounds, crafty props – these elements form the raw materials of writer/director Aaron Hendry and Not Man Apart Physical Theatre Ensemble’s imaginative and exuberant theatrical experience, The Superhero and his Charming Wife. But be aware: While the vernacular of superheroes is delivered with panache, the comic book affectation is entirely aesthetic. The play isn’t a structural critique of superheroes in the mode of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s graphic novel Watchmen. Nor is it really the sort of comic book adventure that works like Watchmen dismantled. What Hendry gives us is an existential crisis filtered through entropy: The tension of order versus chaos, certainty versus risk, hope versus truth. Here we have theatre’s classic concern for the human condition, dressed up in spandex and launched by a quirky domestic scenario in which Hero, portrayed with wonderful physicality and emotional nuance by Jones Welsh, discovers that his wife has inexplicably generated herself a new body.
Preceding this bizarre development, a demon’s opening narration tells us about the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, a grand metaphor for the events to follow. Chaos theory would apply just as well: Small changes in a system’s initial conditions yielding massive and, crucially, unpredictable changes. So the butterfly flaps its wings, the storm is set in motion, and chaos is loosed on Hero’s orderly view of the world, thus setting the stage for a journey that oscillates unevenly between character drama and philosophical abstraction. The most curious aspect of the production is how little of it involves interactions between Welsh and the actresses who play Hero’s wife, Joanna Bateman and Laura Covelli. It’s a shame, because as interesting as the philosophical walkabouts can be, it’s the human drama in their mutable relationship offers so much pow! bam! and zonk!
There are times when it seems as if Hendry lacks control over his story, demonstrative an unfortunate tendency in experimental theatre for narrative elements to wander by mistake: Metaphors trip over each other, ambiguities pile on, staging and narration sometimes compete rather than cooperate with one another, and scenes comment on each other in ways that become circular and indulgent. “Dream logic” can only go so far to excuse a lack of conceptual discipline, the kitchen sink approach of throwing ideas together and hoping that intuitive sense will satisfy for all the lack of an intellectual sense. Call it surrealism or absurdism, but arbitrariness (or the appearance of it) is not always an able substitute for structured allegory.
But the criticism isn’t entirely, or even mostly, fair, however much it feels like it at times throughout the experience. Although The Superhero and his Charming Wife would benefit from pruning to keep the narrative in a manageable state of coherence – at the least, incongruities like the demon with a penchant for quantum mechanics or a witch with reality-warping abilities could have been rendered within the comic book vernacular instead of apart from it – Hendry wisely keeps us grounded in Hero. Whatever goes on around him, or to him, we trust in his reactions: Bewilderment, defiance, fear and vulnerability. The biggest surprise comes at the end when, as in many literary dreams, a final revelation upends our assumptions. Here we forgive Hendry for any questionable yet undeniably fascinating detours, because after everything he shows us in 90 minutes he takes the uncommon path of resisting the existentialist tendency of dissolving into bad-faith nihilism.
So what to make of it all? It’s all a dream, of course. Like any dream we can debate what meaning it has, if any, and how far we are willing to create parallels to our own experience. But as far as pure theatrical experiences go: Excelsior!
The Superhero and his Charming Wife, written and directed by Aaron Hendry. on stage at the Highways Performance Space @ 18th Street St. Arts Center through May 15, 22016. For tickets and information call (310) 315-1459 or go to http://highwaysperformance.org/
Frédérik Sisa is the Page’s Assistant Editor and Resident Art Critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org