American comic book artist Jack Kirby is the creative mind behind Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and a multitude of other smash-hit characters. Kirby’s characters have been given the big screen treatment with the release of Marvel Studio’s Cinematic Universe, which has broken box-office records worldwide. Given the immense popularity of Kirby’s creations, some may ask themselves why the artist’s name doesn’t ring a bell right away.
Enjoying its Canadian premiere at Sage Theatre, Crystal Skillman and Fred Van Lente’s King Kirby chronicles the life of Jack Kirby (Robert Klein), artist and family man who stuck to his guns in a cutthroat creative industry. The play opens with an auctioneer selling Kirby’s priceless artwork to the highest bidder, with Kirby watching in frustration from the sidelines. For Kirby, the money was just as important as the magic behind his work. Kirby’s business partner Joe Simon (Justin Michael Carriere), or the one with the suit, pushes him from business deal to business deal in an industry Simon calls temporary. The comic book industry lasts for several decades, and Kirby is there every step of its evolution, from the Golden Age of Comics to the introduction of the Comics Code Authority.
Skillman and Van Lente’s play looks at the various influences on Kirby’s work, including his time serving under General Patton (Cam Ascroft) in World War II. The key influence, however, is Kirby’s rough upbringing in New York’s Lower East Side during the Great Depression. Kirby is portrayed as a brawler in his early years, something that would change in adulthood. Why Kirby was hesitant to fight for his worth in the industry was that not only did he have a family to feed with his wife Roz (Cheryl Hutton), but he just wasn’t a businessman; the industry and his principles were like oil and water.
Comic book writer Stan Lee (David LeReaney) is another reason Kirby fell into relative obscurity. Today, audiences know Lee as the face of Marvel Comics. (He makes a cameo appearance in just about every movie based on a Marvel property). He didn’t just fall into that position, the playwrights demonstrate. Lee took a lot of credit for the work he and Kirby worked on together, and he was also very friendly with the public. The media ate up Lee’s eccentric behaviour, labeling him a creative genius while ignoring Kirby’s contributions.
The first act is bloated with all the history Skillman and Van Lente try to cover in addition to Kirby and Roz’s relationship. The play feels very much like a crash course on all things Kirby, or a rushed tour through the Kirby museum. Thankfully, the second act is a much tighter, engaging product. Kirby’s fallout with Lee and the legal controversies that ensue hits something very human in this play about a man behind the greatest superheroes of all-time. Kirby’s story is heartbreaking, and it’s a story that plays out again and again with artists all over who lose credit for their work. Makers from all disciplines will identify with Kirby’s struggle to retain control over his work; his soul.
The Victor Mitchell Theatre is set up simply enough, with a raised platform in the middle where Kirby’s drawing table is kept. Actors come in from different corners, playing scenes between two large comic panel frames. Set Designer Anton de Groot’s set is very clean and effective for the kind of scene hopping that plays out. Lauren Acheson’s light is effective, too, with giving the production a number of ‘emotional shades’ for the highs and lows of Kirby’s life. Kathryn Smith’s costume design does a good job of capturing the different time periods that Kirby’s career runs across.
One can’t help but feel, however, that the production would benefit from some projection work to display Kirby’s work against the large, white screens behind the set. Yes, we can all imagine Captain America in our heads, but for a play about such a renowned comic book artist there’s a strange absence of actual artwork, if even some of Kirby’s early creations. (*the absence is likely due to copyright issues).
For opening night, the performance feels like a dress rehearsal. The show runs choppy and unpolished, specifically during scene transitions. The audience sits in silence for just a touch too long before the story picks up again. Director Jason Mehmel’s sharp eye navigates the scene hopping well enough, delivering nice character moments here and there through effective blocking, but the stifled pace drains energy from the show. The script is uneven as mentioned, but regardless there’s a sense that the production’s moving parts aren’t in sync.
That being said, the actors bring plenty dimension to the characters. Klein plays Kirby as a fighter worn out and ready for retirement, but the world wants him to keep fighting. Kirby could fight, after all he nearly died serving overseas in France, but it’s a question of what’s at stake for his family if he loses. So, Kirby is lost in his mind with not only his creations, but his worries about the future, and that struggle reads clear across from Klein. Carriere’s stature is appropriate given he’s the hustle of the two, bringing an almost 80’s Wall Street slickness to the role of Simon. LeReaney, on the other hand, is just absolutely slimey as Lee, like the friend who promises to keep a secret but then tells everyone the next day. He also bears a striking resemblance to Lee with his sunglasses on, giving the catchphrase “Exclesior!” added oomph. Ascroft as Victor Fox also channels that same greasiness, but with more explicit maliciousness. Hutton’s Roz is a fighter like Kirby, but she’s stuck as a spectator to her husband’s misery. The actress mixes that New York toughness with real sensitivity. There aren’t enough scenes between Hutton and Klein who share great chemistry together.
Comic book fans will enjoy and appreciate King Kirby for bringing such an important story to the public’s attention, especially with the popularity of comic book movies in recent years. Unfortunately, Sage Theatre’s production falls short of being mint condition.
Sage Theatre’s King Kirby runs April 15 – 23 at the Victor Mitchell Theatre (Pumphouse Theatres).
For more information about the show, including how to purchase tickets, visit: http://sagetheatre.com/index.php/king-kirby-by-crystal-skillman-and-fred-van-lente/