Saturday, January 23, 2016

Play: Hail to the King, Baby!

King Kirby by Fred Van Lente and Crystal Skillman, Directed by Rob Raas-Bergquist. Ghost Light Theatricals

Jack Kirby was one of the great creative forces of American comics. His art is dramatic, iconic, and immediately recognized. He built much of the modern comics mythology. His story is that of the rise and fall and rise again of the media. We have movies about superheroes, why not have plays about comic book creators?

The play itself is by Fred Van Lente, comic author, who wrote the excellent Action Philosophers series (explaining philosophy in comic book iconography - think of Plato as the Incredible Hulk) and award winning playwright Crystal Skillman. In fact good sequences of the play first showed up in Comic Book Comics by Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey.

The play chronicles Kirby's life, bookended by a Sotheby's auction of his work for prices he was never paid. Tough kid on the lower east side with artistic talent, became an in-betweener for Popeye cartoons before teaming up with Joe Simon to create Captain America, followed by a stint in Europe really punching Hitler in the face, followed by a return to comics upset by Fred Wertham and the comics code, followed by Marvel and the machinating Stan Lee. Through it all Kirby comes through as a brilliant talent who was often too cautious to press for his own rights. First Simon and then Lee were the opportunistic suits/partners who brought Kirby into their plans and encouraged (and often took over) his creations.

The actors are excellent. Rick Espaillat is Kirby, and gets the man down, right down to his smile (I had a fleeting, comic book convention meeting with the original - he was friendly and professional, I was gob-smacked to be in his presence). Espaillat is on-stage the entire play, the rest of ensemble switches in and out of roles with a fluid grace, main characters rising and then diminishing as the years pass. Jason Huff is a sound-bite spouting Funky Flashman of a Stan Lee. James Lyle is a tall drink of water version of Joe Simon, but gives up the role to Anastasia Greeley easily. Greeley for her part is the young Roz, Kirby's wife, who passes it on to Eileen McCann, who is also is the Sotheby's auctioneer. Steven Sterne is delightful as the never-ending slew of bosses who Kirby worked for over the years. They work with a drill-team precision for scenes, and change chameleon-like from major characters to minor ones at the drop of the hat.  Espaillat commands his way through the entire proceedings as Kirby.

The proceedings at the Ghost Light are in the round, which sadly guarantees that for any major scene, there is a one in four chance that you are looking at someone's back. That said, the staging (four entrances to a raised central stage) in minimal and allows for the quick changing of setting, often in mid-scene.

Kirby's story is that of a man who just wants to create, who revels in bringing to life great concepts, but that conception does not line up entirely with the demands of the machine that produces the final product for general consumption. From mobbed-up distributors to government intervention to corporate lawyers, the "real world" has a nasty tendency to impinge on the golden glow of creation from Kirby's fertile mind who ended up creating, but not controlling, a modern mythology.

And yeah, to a much smaller degree, I know the feeling.

More later,