Canadian Premiere: King Kirby Chronicles Life of Famed Comic Book Artist

Jack & Stan-2

Left to Right: Stan Lee (David LeReaney) and Jack Kirby (Robert Klein) in Sage Theatre’s King Kirby, a play by Crystal Skillman & Fred Van Lente. Photo Credit: Justin Michael Carriere.

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/

 

I Say, You Say: Holt Takes The Stage For Shakespeare’s Will

Elinor Holt plays Anne Hathaway in Thiessen's one-woman drama Shakespeare's Will. Photo credit: McDonald Photography.

Elinor Holt plays Anne Hathaway in Thiessen’s one-woman drama Shakespeare’s Will. Photo credit: McDonald Photography.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, maybe. Ask William Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway (Elinor Holt) what she thinks about that.

One part history, several parts dramatic whimsy, Canadian playwright Vern Thiessen’s Shakespeare’s Will should not be taken as a pure biography of Anne Hathaway’s life. Think of the play – presented by Sage Theatre – more as an imagining inspired by historical fact. Thiessen’s imagining is primarily inspired by Shakespeare’s last will and testament, an actual document whose phrasing has produced much speculation on the nature of Anne and William’s relationship.

On the eve of William’s funeral, Anne is pressured by her husband’s sister, Joan, to hurry home and read his will. Anne is hesitant, however, to read her late husband’s final wishes. Instead, the widow journeys back to when she, at the age of 26, met the young Shakespeare. The 18-year-old writer is, surprisingly, a man of few words, content only to respond with ‘aye’ when speaking with Anne. Despite this, Anne falls for and eventually marries William – Anne’s pregnancy may or may not have fast tracked that decision.

Anne and her three children are just about abandoned by William when his theatrical aspirations call him to London. Yes, he sends money and (very brief) letters from the city, but what about the months spent away from his family? What about Anne’s unfulfilled sexual desires? Maybe Anne’s overbearing father was right about not trusting Catholics. After all, William is nowhere close for support when the plague breaks out.

Thiessen may not be interested in telling just any old love story, but the play certainly feels familiar. One reason for the play’s familiarity is that at its core, its premise is this: a woman marries an artist whose career takes him far away from home. No doubt, what makes this specific story standout is the mystique surrounding Shakespeare’s personal life. Given that Anne is very much on the periphery of that fascination, more of an answer on an high school English exam than a historical figure, Thiessen’s play feels as though any couple of the same dynamic could replace Anne and William.

Thiessen’s rich, flowing language has a rhythm to it that Holt carries wonderfully. Kelly Reay’s smooth direction matches Thiessen’s style impeccably. The director’s strong awareness of space and movement transforms the stage into an almost dream-like sea of memories where Holt is caught adrift. Ajay Badoni’s emotional lighting design plunges the stage further into this ethereal state, to the tune of Allison Lynch’s solid musical composition.

Memory is a powerful thing as Holt demonstrates in full force. How Holt so effortlessly sweeps back and forth between Anne’s memories is mesmerizing. Every word spoken feels honest, almost as if Holt were revealing a secret to a friend. Holt truly lives every detail of Anne’s personal history, from the birth of her children to her unhappy encounter with tragedy. Alone, Holt conjures an intimate, stirring performance that almost convinces us otherwise about Thiessen’s loose imagining of history.

Ultimately, Thiessen’s springboard for imagination, as he calls it, misses the mark by telling a story about a woman like Anne Hathaway, not a story about Anne Hathaway. Thiessen admits the play is not a proper historical representation of Anne Hathaway, and that apology is founded. Although there is not a vast wealth of knowledge about Anne Hathaway’s personal life, there is still something strange about trying to stage Anne’s perspective when it relies so heavily on her husband’s legacy. Thiessen’s script is written well as it offers plenty for Holt to sink her teeth into, but audiences may feel a lingering disconnect in the back of their minds.


Sage Theatre’s Shakespeare’s Will runs Nov 6 – 14 at the Joyce Doolittle Theatre.

For more information about the show, including ticket information: http://sagetheatre.com/

Tuplin Gets Personal With Dis/Connected

Melissa Tuplin's Dis/Connected was presented by Sage Theatre's Ignite! Festival. Image provided by Sage Theatre.

Melissa Tuplin’s Dis/Connected was presented by Sage Theatre’s Ignite! Festival. Image provided by Sage Theatre.

In our daily lives, do we exhibit the true self, that which is grounded in our personal convictions, or a false self, an image built upon expectation? For Melissa Tuplin, the former is a desire, while the latter is reality.  And so, she asks, if our identities exist outside ourselves, then what does that leave us with?

Presented by Sage Theatre’s Ignite! Festival, Tuplin’s latest solo piece Dis/Connected explores the complex relationship between who we are and how we want to be seen.

The lyrics “what is wrong with me?” repeat. It is a persistent echo of the mind. Nothing, Tuplin responds by baring herself to us. Yet, despite her confidence, there are small glimpses of hesitation that reveal themselves. But the desire to be happy, to be sincere and at peace with oneself is overwhelming. The dancer’s movements slice the air with vigor as she strives to resuscitate a connection lost too long ago.

In an act of defiance, Tuplin crosses the threshold and walks out into the audience. A determined look meets our curious gaze, until finally she takes a seat. No more is she an image.

Tuplin’s Dis/Connected is at once introspective and bold. Tuplin’s intimate examination of self-expression versus self-censorship excites with its vulnerability.


Melissa Tuplin’s solo piece Dis/Connected was presented by Sage Theatre’s 2015 Ignite! Festival. The festival ran June 18 – 20 inside The Studio at Vertigo Theatre.

A full recording of Tuplin’s Dis/Connected is available here: http://dancingmonkeylab.com/2015/06/14/disconnected-a-new-solo-work-by-melissa-tuplin/

For more information about Melissa Tuplin, visit: http://www.melissatuplin.com/

 

MacAlpine’s Polonius and His Children Delivers Intense Family Drama

Anna MacAlpine's Polonius and Children ran as part of Sage Theatre's 2015 Ignite! Festival. Pictured: John McIver (Polonius) and Brianna Johnston (Ophelia). Imaged provided by Sage Theatre.

Anna MacAlpine’s Polonius and Children ran as part of Sage Theatre’s 2015 Ignite! Festival. Pictured: John McIver (Polonius) and Brianna Johnston (Ophelia). Imaged provided by Sage Theatre.

One hopes that the dead find peace in the afterlife; some respite from their mortal pains. That is, after all, the promise of death: an ultimate end. But what if, what if the dead are no different than those who roam the earth, burdened by secrets and regret?

Anna MacAlpine’s Polonius and His Children imagines a reunion between the titular character (John McIver) and his children – Ophelia (Brianna Johnston) and Laertes (Greg Wilson) – in the afterlife. The reunion is, unfortunately, not a happy one as the characters, the very same from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, meet only to confront each other on unresolved issues. Among them is an unseen, mischievous spirit of the void (Amy Sawka) who narrates the drama.

Ophelia is the first to meet Polonius. Upon seeing her soaked dress, Polonius, whose stab wounds have not healed, asks who drowned her. Ophelia’s response is, very fortunately, interrupted by Laertes’ entrance into the void. Quickly, Ophelia and Laertes find that their father, despite an eternity for reflection, is the same old fool he was when they were alive.

While Polonius’ children both assert themselves against their father, it is Ophelia who struggles most to have her independence recognized. Even in this hellish landscape, Polonius and Laertes continue to dominate Ophelia’s life. They speak so much over Ophelia that she is never given the chance to explain herself. In fact, MacAlpine argues, Ophelia has never been allowed to explain herself.

Here, MacAlpine examines through a feminist lens the works of art inspired by Ophelia’s death. MacAlpine does so by envisioning what Ophelia would say about the artists who, over the years, have portrayed her as a virginal beauty who died a ‘beautiful death’. It was not beautiful, Ophelia says, it was painful. And why is there, she asks, such importance placed on virginity? How does that make a death beautiful in any way? Ophelia’s soliloquy is replete with anger, frustration at the narratives imposed upon her exploited body.

Along the way, MacAlpine infuses humour into the play in the way of clever references to the source material. The playwright, too, has fun with the characters whom she has written with her own flavour. Although, while the humour works in some areas, the humour feels out of place and at odds with the play’s overall brooding tone.

In terms of performances, the ensemble is strong. Sawka is very physical and light on her feet. Her playfulness never upstages the main action. McIver plays Polonius brilliantly. McIver’s mannerisms signal a Polonius who has lived one life too many; an old man unable to find rest. Johnston and Wilson do well as Ophelia and Laertes. Wilson’s casual demeanor mixed with his solid delivery attracts big laughs from the audience. Johnston nails the soliloquy given to her, she is truly in synch with her character.

MacAlpine’s Polonius and His Children is a smart, poignant drama that intrigues with its troubled characters and urgent themes.


Anna MacAlpine’s Polonius and His Children was presented by Sage Theatre’s 2015 Ignite! Festival. The festival ran June 18-20 at The Studio inside Vertigo Theatre.

“If Only We Could Let It Be What It Is”: MacIvor’s A Beautiful View Asks What’s In A Name

Would a rose be as sweet if it had no name at all? Presented at The Studio (Vertigo Theatre), Daniel MacIvor’s A Beautiful View criticizes our need to label relationships. Thanks to the chemistry of its two leads, Sage Theatre’s production of A Beautiful View, directed by Jason Mehmel, captures MacIvor’s signature wit.

The play begins with L (Stacie Harrison) and M (Monice Peter) who, rather cryptically, decide to revisit their past together, all the while being aware of the audience. Their story begins when they meet each other in a store while shopping for camping gear. From this meeting, an attraction develops between the two. The attraction, though, is neither totally friendly or romantic; it just simply is. But, as the years go on, the question of defining what they are soon makes its way to the forefront of their relationship and, as a result, breeds tension between the two.

MacIvor confronts his audience with a deceptively simple question: what is in a name? For the playwright, the act of naming something, especially something so personal as a relationship, is political. Continue reading