New theater companies arise, often bringing new artists and insights, fresh energy and previously unseen playwrights to the region.
That's certainly the case with Tiny Engine Theater's production of HEARTS LIKE FISTS, playwright Adam Szymkowicz' loopy 2012 homage to masked superheroes, medical dramas, soapy dialogue and broken hearts everywhere. But young artists make young mistakes, and those are also present in Tiny Engine's inaugural stand. Though they don't add up to a critical stop sign, they still reduce the impact of an otherwise rewarding show.
A city's tranquility is shattered when the hideous Dr. X (Jon Todd) embarks on a killing spree, snuffing out loving couples in their sleep. Meanwhile across town, Peter (Ryan Ladue), a dashing young doctor with a bum ticker, races against time to perfect his secret project: a heart so artificial that no one will ever fear falling in love again. Betwixt the two stands a group of masked women crime fighters called—what else?—The Crimefighters. Nurses by day, avengers by night, their number soon includes the dangerously gorgeous Lisa (Laurel Ullman). She's their latest recruit—and the only woman to have survived meeting Dr. X.
If this sounds like a pulpy superhero soap opera in the making, you're right. Szymkowicz lovingly filigrees his script with genre-based grace notes. Villains have surreal aliases like The Economist and Little Orphan Drillnose, and Lisa's romance hits the rocks when she cannot reveal her crime-fighting alter ego.
In between fisticuffs, characters philosophize about love. As Peter's mechanical pump repeatedly fails, Sally, the leader of The Crimefighters (Mara Thomas), sappily intones, "A heart only beats for who a heart beats for." Ed Wood, call your office.
But a director and cast inadequately seasoned in comic timing sacrificed multiple laugh lines last Friday night. And the cramped feeling this production had was due more to bad blocking than a too-small set, as sections of Common Ground's stage remained unexplored. In static sequences at the nurses' station, actors did little except stand in a line and talk. The rewarding physical comedy between Crimefighter Nina (bubbly Tara Nicole Williams) and a nurse named Nurse (soulful and funny Liz Webb) suggested other locations where similar slapstick could have been used.
Other gaffes included a badly focused light cue, long transitions, a deceased character whose leg moved in mid-scene, and a white whale of a bed that proved the most focus-pulling set piece of the year.
Throughout the production, I felt the tug of larger-than-life characters pruned back to merely human dimensions. With the reduced dynamic ranges of Dr. X, Peter and the Crimefighters (including Kirsten Ehlert as the spunky Jazmin), this tribute to comic books leans too heavily toward Harvey Pekar (whose urban angst was immortalized in American Splendor) when a bit more of Jack Kirby, Marvel's Wagnerian illustrator—and a lot more of Mad satirists Jack Davis and Mort Drucker—would have come in handy.
Still, with this much talent, I'm on board for the next Tiny Engine excursion. You should be, too.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Arrivals and departures"