By now, fans of Furious Theatre Company expect every show to end with dead bodies. It’s how we get there that thrills – and usually chills.
When I heard their latest offering (after combating some huge obstacles outlined here) was “part theater and part graphic novel,” I jumped at a ticket for opening weekend. Usually I wait until the middle of a 6-8 week run of a local production, but I knew this was a chance to see one of my favorite outreach principles in action: a direct attempt at broadening one’s audience by appealing to different interests.
Since I come from a theatre arts background with a strong interest in the comics world, this production was pretty much made for me. If it were done by nearly any other theatre company, I’d be concerned they couldn’t pull off the technical elements needed to combine a comic book design with a live experience.
But this is Furious Theatre, and I knew they wouldn’t try it if they couldn’t do it – well. The story centers around the teen Josh Jaxon, a budding comic artist haunted by the powers of his own “Hellbound Hero” versus the realities of his high school life. Playwright Matt Pelfrey describes his relationship with comics before writing this play:
“I grew up on comic books. It’s almost all I cared about as a kid. I had stacks of them. Things really took off for me during the John Byrne era of the X-Men. I have almost every issue from #94 until Byrne left. I also have Wolverine’s first appearance in the Hulk. I was a big Marvel fan – I loved back in the days when Marvel was into one time-line and the editors kept track of what the characters were doing when they appeared in other characters’ comics and continuity matter.”
The production melds storytelling through design elements and live performance. Preparing for such a technical production proved challenging. The work they did prior to starting rehearsals (often only a 4-5 week process) included staging the show in a warehouse and filming it, so illustrator Ben Matsuya had reference material. Director Damaso Rodriguez and video projection designer Jason Thompson had to translate elaborate superhero powers to the stage. Casting Fight Director Brian Danner and seasoned stage and screen combat actors increased the realities of the fight. The actors all had enough experience that more risks could be taken safely, but not all of Pelfrey’s stage directions could be realized exactly. Harnesses and working with an aerialist were considered but cost-prohibitive.
Rodriguez elaborates on how experimentation in rehearsal allowed for the moment when “Josh Jaxon begins ‘to float’, then begins flying and shooting cosmic energy from his fingers. …When we began rehearsal we still did not know how we were going to do this. In order to… ‘feel’ like he was floating, Nick Cernoch (who plays Josh Jaxon) played the scene while standing on a skateboard. This allowed him to wobble like he was floating and move his body like he was learning to fly.” Although meant to only be an exercise for the actor in rehearsal, “In the end, we kept the skateboard staging. Our artist Ben Matsuya drew a projected backdrop for the setting which our projection designer Jason H. Thompson later animated. When Josh begins to float, the sky moves, and eventually he’s soaring through the clouds. Add the right trippy music from composer Doug Newell, and Josh IS flying. We all get it. And when he loses his balance off the skateboard and falls to the ground, we see him come crashing down to earth.”
The heart of the story is still Josh Jaxon. The magic of a feeling, believable acting, design, and letting the audience’s imagination fill in the blanks: live theatre at its best. That moment was merely one among hundreds like this over the course of the two hour play (with a short intermission I could have done without, but I’m sure the actors and production team needed a break from the fast paced story).
This production is not merely about special effects, any more than you could remove the art or characters from a comic and still be successful. The heart of the story is Josh Jaxon, whose gut (and teenage lust) thrust him into the media spotlight as a hometown hero. He and two other phenomenal characters (played to perfection by Troy Metcalf and Shawn Lee) perform good deeds as part of their jobs and basic human instinct. The Media Vultures, as named in the script, create the superhero image of each character who then have nowhere to go but down. And down they fall, until a second act twist gives them control of their fates again. To say any more would absolutely ruin it.
Rodriguez says that producing this play became a “company obsession,” no matter the risks or obstacles. “We’d never seen anything like this done before. It felt new and really exciting to us and something that we would want to see ourselves on stage. Add to that, Matt was our resident playwright, a true L.A.-bred writer who had written something really ambitious for the theatre. Something that defied form and genre. We just wanted to see the play come to life at whatever cost.”
They went a few steps further and created a comic follow-up to the play. The continued story (and intriguing villain) took me aback just as much as the play itself, and I only wish it were longer to further develop the characters and story.
Pelfrey wants to know, admittedly “selfishly, if [you, the reader] thought I did the comic elements justice. And I’d want to know if seeing a play like this would make them venture out to other plays.”
I do too. It only runs through the end of February and has gotten great reviews, so get your tickets now. Every Thursday is Pay-What-You-Can, and no amount is too small. Then tell us and Furious what you thought!
Adult: $25 | Students/Senior: $12
THURS – SAT @ 8PM: SUN @ 2PM & 7PM
Week of JAN 29: WED @ 8 PM: FEB 1, SAT @2P & 7P: FEB 4, No show SUN, FEB 5
THURS @ 8PM; JAN 26, FEB 2, FEB 9, FEB 16, FEB 23
KATIE MARIE DAVIES
DANA KELLY, JR.
DAVID C. HERNANDEZ
Original Graphic Illustration – BEN MATSUYA
Set Design – JOHN IACOVELLI
Lighting Design – DAN WEINGARTEN
Costume Design – CHRISTY HAUPTMAN
Props Design – Shannon Dedman
Video Projection Design – JASON H. THOMPSON
Sound Design & Original Music – DOUG NEWELL/ZIPLINE SOUND
Fight Choreography – BRIAN DANNER
Production Manager – SUSAN K. COULTER
Stage Manager – CHRISTIE WRIGHT GILMORE
Assistant Stage Manager – DEIDREW WORKS
Marketing/Graphic Design – JESSICA SMITH/HIVE CREATIVE STUDIO
Website Development – LOCHLAN MCINTOSH
Publicity – LUCY POLLACK
The acclaimed Furious Theatre Company is producing the world premiere of a unique show that brings the graphic novel and theater together. NOgoodDEED is the creation of Furius Theatre’s award-winning writer-in-residence Matt Pelfrey (An Impending Rupture of the Belly) and illustrator Ben Matsuya. The stage production is being directed by Dámaso Rodriguez, co-founder and director-in-residence of Furious; Nick Cernoch stars. Originally planned for 2010, the show will open January 21 as part of the respected [Inside] the Ford play series in partnership with the L.A. County Arts Commission.
Furious Theatre’s award-winning writer in residence exposes the dark side of good deeds in this skillfully drawn, dark comedy about young Josh Jaxson, who is driven to ruin by his own act of bravery. Josh and two fellow “heroes” unite in the afterlife and vow to undo their courageous feats by adopting superhero personas and an unconventional brand of time travel. NOgoodDEED is a savagely humorous ride that is part play, part graphic novel, and part something utterly new and extreme.
Just how the two forms are being merged isn’t clear at this time, but the website IamHellbound.com promises to unveil lots of information as we get closer to opening day.
Seeing theater, which has certainly been no stranger to the struggle of finding new audiences, embrace comics like this is interesting, and maybe a touch ironic. While sales of comics and graphic novels have been struggling, the energy behind them for movies and TV shows has grown significantly over the last decade. With high budget stage productions starring Spider-Man and Batman filling seats, can a brand new story made with both the page and the stage in mind bring that same kind of interest and enthusiasm to theater?