Superheroes on Stage in NYC

Mon, January 28th, 2008 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Shaun Manning, Staff Writer

The play "Save The World" runs until Febuary 9 in New York City
As the hometown of Spider-Man, the setting of much of "Heroes," and the site of countless caped skirmishes between the forces of good and evil, New York City has an extensive history with superheroes, but witnessing the grand adventures of costumed powerhouses live on stage is a comparatively rare treat. Running Thursdays through Saturdays until February 9 at the American Theatre of Actors, Roundhouse Ensemble's "Save the World" brings super-team action to life in an exciting and lively production written by Chris Kipiniak and written by Michael Barakiva.

A contributor to "Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man," Kipiniak's new play hits all the notes of a grand superhero epic. "Save the World" begins with a dark monologue by Roach, former sidekick to the hero Aeon, who has been driven insane by the events of a catastrophic Protectorate mission. As the story unfolds, we learn that this event - dubbed "the Conflagration" - also claimed the life of another hero, the telepathic Prodigy, and laid waste to the city of Denver. Now, as multiple natural disasters break out across the world, the remaining members of the Protectorate race to discover what - or who - is responsible for the destruction, while also struggling with their own past mistakes.

The tone of the story itself fits somewhere on the darker side of a modern "X-Men" comic. It's grim without taking itself too seriously, and it brings in real-world conflicts while remaining unabashedly a superhero tale. As such, "Save the World" should appeal to a wide swath of the comic book community. The play will also do well among young theatergoers - the children in the audience, aged about 12 or so, absolutely loved it - but the occasional blue language might give parents pause. The cursing is by no means frequent, though in one instance it is quite severe.

"Save the World" does take some chances in terms of storytelling, sneaking in political commentary almost through the back door. As the main plot progresses, we are also made aware that the Protectorate is about to assume responsibility for the city of Jerusalem. Though rarely mentioned, this actually turns out to be a fairly key motivator to several character arcs, and ultimately leads to some barely disguised "War on Terror" rhetoric, which is both very funny and slightly unnerving.

Other aspects of the plot, such as overt nods to "Watchmen," will elicit different reactions among those who are well versed in comic book lore and those who may be witnessing these events with uninitiated eyes.

The play does a surprisingly good job of translating superhero action to the stage, employing panels built into the set and a heavy serving of sound effects to convey the dangerous feats and spectacular rescues our heroes perform.

And the actors sell it, displaying their powers through an appropriate wave of the hand or thrust of a sword. Stephen Bel Davies, playing tactical commander Stagger, does an excellent job conveying his character's slimy charisma, while the energetic and innocent Quake (Christine Corpuz) gives the audience a hero to really root for. Though Ms. Corpuz gives a faultless performance, her casting in this role should have engendered a slight change in the script - several lines indicate that Quake is Native American, but the actress is Asian American. There is nothing in the way that the character behaves that would require her to have any particular cultural background, so the dissonance could be amended easily enough by simply cutting references to her "tribe."

There is also a weakness in the area of stage combat, which has largely been resolved by avoiding physical fights on-stage; but a brief encounter between Roach and Future Knight reminds us what's lacking. Noshir Dalal, playing the guileless hero Legend, clearly has some martial arts or dance training, and executes some exciting moves, but these are not performed against a physical adversary.

In addition to the "action panels" built into the set, "Save the World" makes strong use of its environment, allowing the heroes to charge across raised platforms and tumble over a "Hall of Justice"-style conference table. There are also some fun things going on with the costumes - in one flashback sequence, Legend has not yet adopted the sash that he wears through most of the play - showing Oana Botez-Ban's ability to design superhero uniforms comparable to what would be seen in comics. Stagger's red leisure suit is absolutely fitting to his character, and Umbra's (Charissa Chamorro) "bad girl" outfit is in keeping with a shadow-powered hero. For Future Knight, though, the ensemble is a bit clunky, and it's unclear why she wears the heavy gloves even in her civilian garb.

For comic fans looking for a fun night out, "Save the World" offers an engaging story backed up by strong acting and clever scenic design. There is some cheesiness, and there are a few flaws, but in the context of superheroes and the larger universe of the comic book medium, it all feels appropriate - after all, some of us just wouldn't be happy without the occasional "WTF" moment - and contributes to the overall feeling that this play is an authentic manifestation of a love for comics.

"Save the World" runs January 17-February 9, Thursday through Saturday, at the American Theatre of Actors, 314 West 54th Street. Tickets and further information are available at www.roundhouseensemble.org.

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