Presenting what is perhaps the largest comic book in history, Redmoon Theatre's "The Astronaut's Birthday" opened Thursday night at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art. The production mixes elements of theatre - live performance, an elaborate set - with sequential comic illustrations projected onto three stories of the museum's exterior to tell a Silver Age Marvel-style story of adventure in space. "The Astronaut's Birthday" was co-created by Frank Maugeri and Jim Lasko, directed by Maugeri, and written by Tria Smith. Chris Burnham, artist of "Officer Downe" at Image and BOOM! Studios' current "Amory Wars" series, served as Storyboard/Story Consultant and Donovan Foote was the Lead Illustrator/Character Developer, working with a cast of other artists. The result of their cumulative efforts was a production that can be enjoyed both as a simple sci-fi adventure and a masterful work of theatrical engineering and spectacle.
After the sort of title sequence designed to get 1950s TV viewers excited for the program to follow, the story opens with a mysterious orb crashing into a farmer's field, bearing the weird message "Send one." This opening scene - presented as a series of three three-story panels, revealed one after the other - further tells us that this Orb, and the Summoner who directed it to Earth, is searching for someone with a matching orb. Enter Al, an everyman with a loving wife and daughter, who discovers that a marble he's held since childhood is in fact the orb's twin. Al is sent into space (along with his hitchhiking daughter Lindy) to meet the Summoner and return with the alien being's knowledge for the betterment of humanity. As the weird and powerful Summoner - a floating eye with a HAL-like voice - begins to entice Al with promises of medical miracles and roadmaps to peace, it soon becomes clear that all is not as it seems.
If the plot sounds like genre stock, it is - which, to be fair, is perfectly in keeping with Redmoon's stated aesthetic goals of evoking comics and sci-fi tales from a bygone era. But the true art of "The Astronaut's Birthday" is in its presentation, which is nothing short of astonishing. If an 80-foot tall comic book sounds impressive, that's really only the start of it. The images, which are projected onto the museum's windows from within the building (and across three floors), are created on 10"x10" acetate panels with gelled colors and projected using overhead projectors of the sort that were until recently ubiquitous in schools. Each projector is operated independently by puppeteer-animators, many of them students at Columbia College, and changes - switching out panels, transitions, speech bubble reveals, and so forth - are directed by walkie-talkie using mathematical coordinates. None of this, of course, is apparent to the audience. But the complexity of the operation makes what is seen all the more incredible.
The Redmoon creators make use of several different panel sizes - two windows by two windows is the smallest, with other common sizes being 4x2 and 6x4 and many images take up the full canvas - to excellent effect in terms of pacing and directing focus; it's clear they know the comic book medium as well as how its conventions can best be applied to the company's purposes. The performative aspect of the panels, too - shaking fists, grasping robotic hands, smoking debris, falling rockets, etc. - add an additional layer of excitement. There is occasionally more direct performance, as well, as actors' silhouettes interact with the illustrated scenery. Though there are some small hiccups in coordinating so many moving parts, the fact that everything comes together as fluidly as it does is a testament to the project's intricate choreography.
Complementing the visual element, composer Jeff Thomas has created a score that invokes an earlier vision of the future, at times incorporating ray-gun sounds and the type of noises that might have emanated from a giant cardboard computer into the music itself. A particularly effective use of SFX-infused music occurred as our heroes were pursued by giant robots who would stun their prey with a laser beam - the manic, beat-driven song conveyed the sense of chase as well as the deadly mechanical nature of the threat and and the sheer alienness of the situation.
It's hard to imagine that "The Astronaut's Birthday" could be very portable - it's perfectly designed for the MCA's façade and it's lucky that there's room enough in from of the museum to erect bleachers. The show might be reproducible at another public building with a similar layout, but few spaces will have available all the elements of an appropriate canvas, access to the interior space needed to project to that canvas, and an area from which an audience could appropriately enjoy the presentation. As such, its audience may be limited to those who are able to attend the performances in Chicago. But again, this is in keeping with many of Redmoon's site-specific projects.
For comic fans in and around the Windy City, though, there's a lot to enjoy in Redmoon's Kirbyesque live-action graphic novel. Those with a nostalgia for or appreciation of Silver Age comics will enjoy a the journey into space for its throwback themes and aesthetic, while fans more firmly rooted in contemporary comics will have an opportunity to view the graphic medium and its storytelling possibilities in a new way. And, of course, the mere presence of a giant outdoor comic book visible from the Magnificent Mile should give passersby a great reason to look, up in the sky.
"The Astronaut's Birthday" runs Thursday, Friday, and Sunday at 7:30pm, Sept. 9-26 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. For tickets or additional information visit mcachicago.org.