Over the past 60 years, the role of American comic books has morphed from a means of escapist fantasy to a mirror reflecting grim reality. Instead of providing a primary-colored version of the world populated by clearly defined heroes, graphic novels now mimic the murky shades and morality of modern times. Story lines about secret identities and megalomaniacal geniuses have been swapped for plots about the Superhuman Registration Act and multiple universes. What's a lover of fun and spandex to do? Vampire Cowboys Theater Company finds the balance between light and dark in its jubilantly nerdy new show, Men of Steel. With this origin story that riffs on familiar genre archetypes, the "VC comics universe" makes excellent use of the talents of the company's own dynamic duo (writer Qui Nguyen and director Robert Ross Parker) in a kinetic, hilarious production.
Our story begins with good gal Liberty Lady's battle with and takedown of Captain Justice, her partner in (fighting) crime. From there, we are guided backward in time by the narrator, Maelstrom, through the early days of the Captain. As a child, Justice was a scrawny kid named Jason whom Maelstrom (then known as Malcolm) protected from schoolyard bullies.
Though the details of their lives change wildly—Jason agrees to take part in a government experiment to gain superpowers and gets married, while Malcolm grieves over the murder of his parents and lives alone—their mutual desire to fight the good fight leads them to the same occupation. But it's the reason that they fight, as well as the consequences of their personal lives, that shapes the way they approach their work and causes trouble for Jason/Justice.
Besides the main narrative, there are stories about other super-heroes, super-villains, and super-wannabes that weave themselves into the fabric of the tale. Bryant, who can feel no pain, allows himself to be a whipping boy for paying strangers. Los Hermanos Manos ("the Hand Brothers") step up as Bushwick, Brooklyn's own crime fighters because the big guys only battle baddies in high-profile areas. Yet amid all of this heaviness is a fantastically silly low-rent "cartoon" of Captain Justice and Liberty Lady, starring Lego men and a sometimes visible pair of hands.
Playwright Qui Nguyen's script is a mix of wisecracking asides and melodramatic dialogue that takes the most fun and the most self-indulgent aspects of the genre's writing and blows them up to match the life-sized world onstage. Director Robert Ross Parker has his actors strike ironic comic-panel poses now and again but smartly doesn't stick to freeze-frame blocking. Marius Hanford's fight choreography was a little too "safe" at times in the second preview performance I saw, but it will undoubtedly become more fluid and impressive with each night. (For an audience member, it's preferable to notice someone pulling a punch than to be concerned about potential injury.)
Fortunately, the actors have already found their groove. It's tough to sell a line when you're wearing a bright, skin-tight costume, but the eight-person cast of Equity and non-Equity performers do so with panache. Each member of the ensemble finds the humanity and super-humanity in his or her roles and, when required, can tell a joke and dodge a fist with ease.
Two men who did double duty in minor roles—Tom Myers and Paco Tolson—brought a lot to their characters. Myers managed to be heartbreaking and funny as the dim and indestructible Bryant. As Anderson, a frat boy turned cop, the actor never fell for the stereotype, instead making the audience's sympathies shift for and against him. Tolson made for a giddily inept bad guy as The Mole. When playing Damon (one-half of Los Hermanos Manos), he came off as a well-meaning kid lacking in street smarts but with a healthy dose of self-confidence, rather than just another dumb urban kid in the 'hood.
The widespread popularity of TV's Heroes shows that the market for these kinds of good versus evil stories is larger than the traditional teenage boy/aging boy fan base of old. Similarly, Vampire Cowboys's Men of Steel is not just for comic geeks. This production has fighting, sex appeal, pathos, jokes, and a double dose of Abba on the soundtrack. Truly, it caters to the geek in all of us.