Hollywood has made billions cashing in on our fantasies of having special powers like the comic book superheroes. Yet some people actually turn the dream into reality by dressing in costumes and doing good deeds or even fighting crime as street vigilantes. Gwydion Suilebhan tackles the psychology behind these real-life superheroes, or REALS, in an intriguing world premiere production from Theater Alliance at the H Street Playhouse.
Jack (Andrés C. Talero), a young Coast Guard veteran, dreams of becoming a modern day superhero. Jack is an idealistic person who deeply believes in living life by a strict code that includes protecting the innocent. In the standard superhero mythology, he also believes you need a costume, a special name, and a secret identity. He works out two hours a day in the gym and has assembled a nightstick, Kevlar® vest, etc. in preparation for fighting crime as “Nightlife.”
Jack’s friend and sidekick is a woman named Laney (Blair Bowers), whose skills in martial arts have led her to adopt the superhero name of “Belt.” While she seems to have faith in Jack for reasons unknown, she has a different take on being a REAL.
Jack embraces every aspect of the standard superhero mythology. Beneath his belief in the importance of maintaining a secret identity, he loves having a cool nickname and fancy costume (complete with a cape reminiscent of Batman). Laney is less in love with the mythic superhero aspects; she views her superhero outfit more as work clothes only to be worn when out on the streets.
Jack also believes in the importance of a superhero as a symbol. He thinks a superhero should deter criminals and offer hope to the populace. That’s part of the reason why Nightlife has a blog site. It’s also evident that Jack loves the idea of fame. On the other hand, Laney believes that a more low profile approach is better.
While you might think that these two different philosophies would make it difficult for the two to cooperate, Jack points out that all superhero teams bicker. Besides, he is interested in assembling a team of superheroes to make the streets safe. Jack and Laney have met because Jack is ready to interview a new potential member of his team.
Because Laney is also skilled at determining when people are telling the truth, Jack covertly involves her in an interview session with a “Sensei” (a Japanese term describing a teacher, usually of martial arts). This interview and the entire play take place in a convincing cluttered and graffiti-covered warehouse (setting by Steven T. Royal Jr.).
Sensei says that his superpower is “the power to make people think differently.” Sensei’s philosophy goes beyond stopping individual criminal acts; he wants to tackle criminals and turn them into law-abiding citizens. Sensei’s efforts to demonstrate his approach lead to his capture of a young woman (Brynn Tucker), creating a conflict with Nightlife and Belt over the role of superheroes and their coexistence with the legal system.
The most interesting aspect of REALS is the whole question of why individuals would choose to adopt this streetlife superhero pastime (as pointed out by a lobby billboard, many people across the country have done so). Think seriously about what being a “REAL” would entail – the physical danger, potential legal complications and even public ridicule. (You could make a similar analysis as to why people feel driven to go into, say, politics or social work, but the questions are more interesting set against a superhero framework.)
To explain what might drive them, Suilebhan proposes “the origin story.” For example, Bruce Wayne became Batman after seeing his parents being murdered, while Peter Parker started fighting crime as Spiderman when a criminal he could have stopped kills his Uncle Ben. Jack and Laney each have individual, emotionally affecting origin stories.
In addition to playing the street woman character, Brynn Tucker also appears in costume to present a funny prologue to the play in which she asserts that the audience members really don’t know superheroes at all. Her costumed radical take on superheroes is interesting and funny (are they conservative crime-fighter or liberal revolutionaries, are people the villains or is it the system, and what is the main difference between superheroes and supervillains?). It does lay the framework for a thoughtful approach to the issues presented in REALS, even if the tone and substance have little in common with the play.
The play gets off to a slow start during the prolonged initial squabbling between Jack and Laney. While the dialogue has the necessary background exposition and has some amusing discussion of superhero mythology, the emotional basis for their relationship seems a little shaky.
A more serious flaw is how borderline damaged Jack is from the start. While Andrés C. Talero embodies the idealistic and noble aspects of the would-be hero, the script makes him a little too juvenile to take seriously at times. While Blair Bowers makes her superhero more damaged and believable, their consistent sarcastic bantering becomes a little tiresome.
Fortunately, the play soon picks up with the arrival of Jon Hudson Odom’s Sensei. He steals the show with his Mister Miyagi-style calm oriental wisdom. In addition, his Green Arrow-like hooded outfit and dark glasses make him a more serious and modern superhero compared to Jack’s Nightlife.
After all of the discussion of superhero mythology and characteristics, Suilebhan finds an effective plot device to contrast the different superhero approaches and create conflict between the characters (while includes a nicely realistic fight scene choreographed by Nathaniel Mendez).
Even better, the play concludes with a nice twist ending and delivers a payoff that is true to the characters and their motivations.
Shirley Serotsky does do a fine job directing REALS. She is very effective at balancing the tension between the characters and the moments of humor.
REALS is an intelligent work that invokes the conventions of superheroes without engaging in the mocking parodies often found in movies about such wannabe characters. Even if you are not a fan of superhero comics, this psychological exploration of characters driven to make the world better is interesting on many levels.
REALS by Gwydion Suilebhan, directed by Shirley Serotsky, featuring Blair Bowers, Andrés C. Talero, Jon Hudson Odom, and Brynn Tucker. Scenic and properties design by Steven T. Royal, Jr., lighting design by Stephanie P. Freed, costume design by Kendra Rai, sound design by Elisheba Ittoop, and fight direction by Nathaniel Mendez.