It’s clear from minute one of Astro Boy and the God of Comics that writer and director Natsu Onoda Power is in very familiar (and very beloved) territory. Ms. Power – whose 2009 book, “God of Comics: Osamu Tezuka and the Creation of Post World War II Manga,” was the first full-length study of Tezuka and his work in English – has delivered a play that practically bursts with reverence for the Astro Boy character (who made his debut in a 1951 Japanese manga) and his creator (the titular “God of Comics”).
Astro Boy and the God of Comics is an ambitious project, distilling more than 60 years of “Astro Boy” comics, movies, and TV episodes into a 70-minute stage play. Ms. Power is far less concerned with a literal adaptation than an adaptation which captures the essence of the character – who he was, what he represented, and why he remains an iconic cultural touchstone today. On top of that, she’s delving into the psyche of “Astro Boy” creator Osamu Tezuka, an eccentric figure whose particular habits included an addictive obsession with movies and mismatched outfits that included, without exception, his trademark omnipresent beret.
Tezuka is a compelling figure by any measure, but as told here, it’s hard to imagine that anyone in the theatre has more reverence or respect for his work than Ms. Power (Tezuka’s biography is, rather tellingly, listed before hers in the play’s program).
There’s a lot that works here (and very little that doesn’t) but in the end, Ms. Power’s evident passion is what carries the project through.
Astro Boy features a clever structure of 10 “episodes,” which begin in 2014 and end in 1928. The play’s reverse chronology isn’t just a narrative gimmick – it’s a nod to Astro Boy’s initial appearances in Japanese manga, which are read from right to left (or to Western cultures, “backward”). It also lets us fall in love with the Astro Boy character before we’re introduced to his prickly creator. Alternately played by a projected image, a doll on a stick, a combination of assembled metallic parts, and actress Karen O’Connell, all four versions of Astro Boy are immediately, inconically compelling. The same goes for the rest of Astro Boy’s talented cast, who continuously alternate between their larger parts and ensemble roles without a hitch.
After “Astro Boy” dominates the largely-cheery first episodes, it’s surprising – and effectively surprising – when the play begins to parse the darker aspects of the “Astro Boy” narrative, which includes the death of his creator’s son and his subsequent rejection of Astro Boy as an imperfect copy. Perhaps improbably, Astro Boy veers wildly from one emotion to another in a way that actually works. Even the play’s latter half, which takes place during the mid-20th century and focuses on Tezuka’s creation of the character, manages to provide moments of cartoonish slapstick and moments of genuine emotional pathos – and sometimes within the same minute.
Much of the credit must be given to its unimpeachable production, helmed by a staff whose creative offerings include a dazzling array of lights, projections, and sounds – all enclosed within a set ingeniously designed to resemble a massive TV set. I’d love to expound on some of the Astro Boy’s niftier effects, but part of the fun is being surprised by the talented cast and crew. Consequently, I’ll refrain from going into detail here, but it’s safe to say that the confluence of the play’s many multimedia elements make a successful, well-executed homage to Astro Boy’s roots in comics and on the screen.
As the plays goes on, there are times when watching it feels a little like babysitting a kid who’s had too much sugar. Its pacing is frenetic, and its plot is all over the place, with three or four things it’s eager to show you generally happening onstage simultaneously. This is not necessarily a complaint. The same qualities that occasionally make Astro Boy and the God of Comics seem manic or overstuffed also provide a buoyant energy that carries the play, even at its darkest moments (and it does get dark, including several tragic deaths and a nuclear explosion) through its relatively trim running time.
Perhaps the best praise I can offer for Astro Boy is that I went into the play only vaguely aware of the Astro Boy character, and walked away with a new and genuine appreciation for Tezuka and his work. And after seeing Astro Boy and the God of Comics, first-time patrons of The Studio Theatre’s 2nd Stage – myself included – will likely be feeling the same way about Natsu Onoda Power.
Astro Boy and the God of Comics
Written and directed by Natsu Onoda Power
Produced by The Studio Theatre
Reviewed by Scott Meslow
Running Time: 1 hour and 10 minutes with no intermission