BWW Reviews: Many Mediums Make for a Spectacle in Company One's ASTRO BOY AND THE GOD OF COMICS
In the past few years, with the development of technology and the ever increasing exploration of using new mediums on stage, I have become wary. I worry that the incorporation of projections and video will start to meld the mediums of theatre and film, nullifying the need for classic sets and lights. I once saw a production that created the entire environment out of video projection and as the actors took their bows against a white and barren stage, my heart ached, yearning for the magic that scenic and lighting designers can create. I don't want technology to take away the age old beauty and excitement that comes from live theatre.
That all being said, I am always up for trying something new, especially if there is a chance of some of these fears being alleviated by what I see. And last night, Company One's production of Astro Boy and the God of Comics, written and directed by Natsu Onoda Power, began to change my mind. Telling the story of popular Japanese cartoon, Astro Boy, and his creator, Osamu Tezuka, the piece utilizes more mediums than I ever imagined possible for a stage piece. Not only were projections used, but controlled animation, live drawing, vocal effects, puppetry, and combinations of all of the above.
In general, I am a big fan of Company One's work. Not only do they work incredibly hard as a company to make sure they are providing opportunities to playwrights, directors, actors, and designers of all genders, races, and backgrounds (this particular work was presented through the XX Play Lab, which is dedicated to propelling new work by women), but they also work to make theatre accessible. Each of their productions offers less expensive tickets for the first two weeks of performances, not to mention two specific performances that are pay what you can. I think that theatrical accessibility is an incredibly relevant issue, and I am impressed by Company One's efforts to make theatre for everyone. And on top of all of that, I am continuously surprised and challenged by the new and unique way they approach theatre and art.
Throughout Astro Boy and the God of Comics, I found myself trying desperately to figure out how someone came up with this wildly complex, monstrously creative amalgamation of mediums and story telling means. The creation was no small feat. Although the script and general idea was conceived by Power herself prior, the majority of the piece was devised with the playwright and the ensemble cast in spurts throughout this past year, and their strong connection to one another and to the material was very clear. Everything was choreographed to the tee, with not a step or note out of place. This challenging work required supreme accuracy, as they often utilized the combination of live illustration and moving projections. An actor would come out and draw something on the giant wall of paper, be it a car or planet or street light. Suddenly, as they continued drawing the scene, bits and pieces would illuminate and create a live animation of the art. Not only did the actors have to move with precision, but with speed.
It would be impressive enough if this live animation was the only new and revolutionary medium utilized, but as quickly as it started, it was over, with a even newer, more exciting segment up next. At one point in the story, the actors moved in a robotic assembly line, systematically creating a live replica of Astro Boy. At another point, they frantically drew hurried, charcoal arcs and patterns that eventually created a heartbreaking and beautifully drawn mural, all while one cast member hauntingly played the cello live onstage. Finally, my favorite segment was the portrayal of an almost wordless comic book, expressed solely through hilarious and well timed sound effects. I imagine much of this description must sound completely foreign, which makes sense, as a good amount of this production was beyond description. It was just a wildly inventive use of space, actors, and material.
This cast, which represented a beautiful and diverse range of talented actors, was one of the best examples of ensemble acting I've seen in awhile. Some of the actors had only a handful of lines, but spent the entire show creating, expressing, and story telling. And the team of designers that made this seemingly impossible wonderland a reality are just as much a part of that hardworking ensemble. Even Director and Playwright Natsu Onoda Power, who was the mastermind behind the piece, cannot be called the star, as it was such a collaborative effort. The show often read as a Theatre for Young Audiences piece in its silliness and spectacle, but the material was so sophisticated and, at times, hard-hitting that it can be enjoyed by audiences of all ages. The piece is not preachy, but subtly suggests a remarkably relevant message of the place and power of technology. It was first and foremost entertaining and exciting, but also applicable and educational. I find I am humbled by forms of art I do not readily understand or think of myself, as I realize how much more there is to what I know and expect in the theatre. This smart, inventive, and masterfully planned explosion of medium humbled me greatly.
Directed and Written by Natsu Onoda Power; Dramaturgy by Ramona Ostrowski; Assistant Directed by Jamie Gahlon; Scenic Design by Natsu Onoda Power; Projection Design by Jared Mezzocchi; Lighting Design by Justin Paice; Costume Design by Tyler Kinney; Sound Design by Kelsey Jarboe; Props Design by Megan F. Kinneen; Production Stage Managed by Abigail Medrano; Assistant Stage Managed by Rachel Shaw and Jessica Hogan
Company One's production of Astro Boy and the God of Comics plays through August 16th at the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts. For more information and for tickets, visit www.companyone.org.