The Villains' Supper Club - Merrimack Repertory Theatre
The Villains’ Supper Club – Merrimack Repertory Theatre
Review by James Wilkinson
The Villains’ Supper Club is presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre. Written by Lila Rose Kaplan. Directed by Sean Daniels. Scenic Design: Apollo Mark Weaver. Costume Design: Arthur Oliver. Lighting Design: Brian J. Lilienthal. Sound Design: David Remedios. Projection Design: Elizabeth Dombek. Illustrator: Chad Cunningham. Fight Director: Angie Jepson.
The fact that Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s production of Lila Rose Kaplan’s The Villains’ Supper Club is opening on the same weekend Avengers: Infinity War is being released is either a wonderful bit of serendipity or a brilliant marketing ploy. Either way, it’s a win for us. I have to confess that superhero stories are not exactly my forte. I think I’ve seen about three of the movies in the Marvel cinematic universe and I’ve leafed through only maybe a handful of comic books in my life. So when I went to this production, I went without any real attachment to the genre. I can therefore report back that if you can’t quite keep who Doctor Strange and Iron Man are straight in your head, you shouldn’t let that detour you from seeing this fiercely intelligent production. Playwright Kaplan and director Sean Daniels have concocted a wonderfully fun evening of theater that also manages to inject some topical issues on representation and motherhood into the proceedings.
First issue of this particular comic book opens on Galactic Girl, (Kristen Mengelkoch), the only superhero left in the world. All of the rest were killed off years ago which left the responsibility of saving the world from barrage of supervillains squarely on her shoulders. Chief among those villains is a crime lord on roller skates known only as The Boss (Maggie Carr). The Boss’ father is the one who took out all of the other superheroes and when Galactic Girl defeated him, The Boss swore she would get her revenge against Galactic Girl. She now leads a gang wrongdoers which includes The Flame, Lee the Leopard, Damien the Dart and Fibian the Frog (Lorene Chesley, John Gregorio, Jacob Sherburne and Barlow Adamson) a. It’s a formidable team for Galactic Girl to square off against. What complicates matters is that she’s recently had her first child, meaning that Galactic Girl is now a working mom and in addition to saving the world has to deal with arranging a babysitter, pumping breast milk and fending off parenting advice from people who think they know better. Can Galactic Girl save the world and get the baby to the pediatrician to find out why he’s glowing? Stay tuned…
At first, I wasn’t quite sure how this show was going to work in a theater. So much of the tropes of superheroes, (fight sequences, flying, being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound), would seem to lend themselves more to the visual properties of cinema where you can have fast paced editing, multiple camera angles and elaborate big budget special effects. However, those fears quickly dissipated. The creative team that director Daniels has assembled have worked wonders creating a theatrical language to tell the story of Galactic Girl. Scenic Designer Apollo Mark Weaver sets the stage with giant story panels complete with illustrations from Chad Cunningham and projection design by Elizabeth Dombek that create the illusion of a life-size comic book. Complimented by Brian Lilienthal’s lights and Arthur Oliver’s costumes, the entire production is gorgeous to look at. And it’s remarkable that on a stage this size fight director Angie Jepson finds a way to choreograph fight scenes that feel thrilling and expansive.
From top to bottom the production is a load of fun. You’re not going to find the dark gritty world of the recent DC movies or the Christopher Nolan Batman films. I think the tonal precedence for this is more in line with the Adam West Batman television show or The Tick. Something that’s a bit more lighthearted and doesn’t take itself too seriously. The entire cast joyfully embraces the silliness that is people in tights fighting and committing crime. Lest we forget, though, playwright Kaplan isn’t just creating an evening of fluffy fun. She’s trying to shine a light on the obstacles working mothers face and deconstruct a genre that has a long history of either shoving women to the side or presenting them as little more than objects of desire. So while the cast is clearly having blast chewing off large chunks of scenery, they also strike the difficult balance of playing the characters just straight enough that the emotions land. As Galactic Girl struggles to overcome each roadblock thrown in her path, we’re right there with very exasperated sigh.
If I have one criticism of the play is has to do with how the characters evolve. Although the world of the play is absolutely based on Galactic Girl’s experience, we don’t really see her change as the result of the dramatic events. She’s mostly the same person she is at the start of the play. If anyone changes its Lee the Leopard (how and why he changes I won’t go into for spoiler reasons). And if he’s the one who changes, that doesn’t that technically (in an Aristotelian model) make him the protagonist? In an oddly telling moment, the final image of the play doesn’t have Galactic Girl standing center stage, but Lee the Leopard. It’s a small sticking point but it did strike me as a moment that undercut the otherwise feminist leanings of the play.
Regardless, this is a supper club worth visiting. Whether you’re an expert in the ways of superheroes or a newbie like me, you’ll find plenty to love in this romp through the life of a very super working mom.
The Villains’ Supper Club is playing at Merrimack Repertory Theater April 25-May 20, 2018
For tickets and more information, visit their website: www.mrt.org