|Rick Espaillat as Jack Kirby in King Kirby (photo Omar Willey)|
Through January 23, 2016
Michael Chabon wrote a fictional book about a couple of young Jewish men in New York who created many of the iconic comic characters of our age, in a novel called The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Book-It Repertory Theatre adapted it a couple of years ago for our local stages. It was a great story.
Chabon credited a lot of his inspiration “to the work of the late Jack Kirby, the King of Comics.” Kirby, born Jacob Kurtzberg, established dozens of comic book characters, beginning with Captain America. Now, Ghostlight Theatricals is presenting a new play about Kirby, King Kirby, in their Ballard Underground space. It’s written by cartoonist Fred van Lente with playwright Crystal Skillman.
The play, first produced in 2014, is essentially a bioplay, with a focus on Kirby’s struggle to manage to “own” his own creations, and the maneuvering for his art that rapacious cartoon oligarchies made to gain copyright ownership and strip him and other artists of their royalties. The play supposes that Kirby was more interested in cranking out the comics than in understanding and protecting his copyrights, so he never made that much money from his own art.
The script is serviceable, but in the hands of Ghostlight Managing Director, Rob Raas-Bergquist, the life of Jack Kirby blooms. An ensemble cast of five surrounds Rick Espaillat, a new transplant to the area, who plays Jack from a very young man to past the end of his life (the play begins with Kirby’s death). Espaillat is mesmerizing, especially in his more emotional moments when he struggles with the politics of corporate “entertainment.”
Raas-Bergquist tasks each of the ensemble (Jason Huff, Steven Sterne, James Lyle, Anastasia Greeley, Eileen McCann) to become several dozen people in Jack’s life over time. Each also gets to play one main character, except for Sterne, who plays a large handful of comic book publishers, generals, and politicians, and manages to differentiate every one of them in a small tour de force support performance. They all do a great job as they weave the story through four large panels of drawings representing both cartooning and also “back stage” in a theater-in-the-round staging.
The production animates the story in an interesting way with ensemble members changing character frequently and even sharing portrayals of the same characters. For instance, Greeley and McCann share portrayals of Jack’s wife, Rose; Greeley also shares the role of Joe Simon, Kirby’s business partner in the early years, with Lyle. This creates a dynamism that keeps you figuring out what’s happening. To some extent, it’s a bit mechanical, because the activity doesn’t necessarily add to the plot, but it does wake you up to pay attention to who is talking, since there’s a change in actor, but not character.
The minimal set and the large graphics (by Brandon Estrella) are clean and energizing. Lighting by Mary Heffernan is on-point, giving focus to the action. Costume designer Briana Schwartz had to bring comic book characters to life and also dress people in changing period clothing. That was nicely done.
Biographies are difficult to stage. This one gives you something to chew on (corporate greed, “what is art?” and such) while telling you a story you may never have known about a great American art form.