Monday, June 20, 2016

The Bard and Batman: Stories We Tell Ourselves

That time the Joker went meta on some Shakespeare and then flew away.

I love Shakespeare, and I love Batman. I got to enjoy both these things over the weekend. On Saturday, I saw Cal Shakes's production of beloved comedy Much Ado About Nothing, in which the play itself became a play within a play. Then on Sunday I read somber graphic memoir Dark Night: A True Batman Story, in which a writer on Batman: The Animated Series grapples with the characters he's given voice to in the wake of a personal trauma.

While very disparate in tone and format, I couldn't help but notice how both works raised the questions of why we tell stories, and what we're really doing by telling them.

James Carpenter and Stacy Ross in Much Ado About Nothing

I saw my first Cal Shakes performance last year when, pining for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I realized it was dumb of me to not take greater advantage of the Bay Area theater scene. With its beautiful outdoor theater in Orinda and crowds of Shakespeare-psyched people, I felt right at home. When I learned they were doing one of my favorites this season, I was excited.

Lots (most?) of Shakespeare productions put a spin on the text. I've seen a Harlem Renaissance The Comedy of Errors at Oregon Shakespeare Festival; a 90s pop music Love's Labor's Lost at Silicon Valley Shakespeare; and sat through the biker gang version of Cymbeline where our tragically lost Anton Yelchin did a good job despite the blahness happening around him. This version of Much Ado About Nothing, a collaboration between writer Kenneth Lin and director Jackson Gay, is a brand-new cater-waiter version.

It starts with the end of the play - and behind the scenes. While Hero and Claudio's wedding wraps up off-stage, the catering staff (and the wedding singer, who's been stiffed on his pay) clean up. In verse written by Lin (which feels a little clunky, but what wouldn't next to Will?), they gossip about the events leading up to the wedding and start playfully impersonating their employers. Aided by props from the event photobooth, the co-workers are soon acting out the entire story.

Hero is slandered at the alter.

Gender-bending has always been a part of Shakespeare's work, and having the characters here play-act within their play puts a new and sensible twist on it. Class clown Benedick (or rather, the cater-waiter imitating Benedick) is played by a gangly-but-cool Stacy Ross. James Carpenter's sharp facial features more readily suggest Julius Caesar's Cassius, but he plays Beatrice with dignity and compassion.

The roles the catering staff play are a reflection on their personal relations. Ross and Carpenter's co-workers are clearly longtime adversaries, which is why they jump at the chance to insult each other under the guise of impersonating others. Safiya Fredericks and Denmo Ibrahim's characters are lovers who have hit a rough spot, which gets explored when they play Hero and Claudio. A crush develops between the wedding singer who gets roped into playing Don John (Patrick Alparone) and the catering employee who plays Borachio (Rami Margron), one of Don John's henchmen, and they flirt while scheming. This was my one disappointment: Don John's other henchman is Conrade, and we've now had two Much Ado movies where John and Conrade's "can you make no use of your discontent" scene has been sexy. By having Margron's character play Conrade instead of Borachio, it would be an official trend!

Overlooking that grievous oversight , Gay and Lin's production was a delight - clever, accessible, and joyous.

Less joyous, but life-affirming, is Paul Dini's Dark Night, illustrated by Eduardo Risso. In the 1990s, Paul Dini was a writer for Batman: The Animated Series, the great cartoon that brought us an art deco Gotham, Kevin Conroy as Batman, Mark Hamill as Joker, and Arleen Sorkin as a new character to the Batman canon: Harley Quinn. Also in the 1990s, Dini was mugged in an attack so violent he required facial reconstruction surgery.

Dini talks to us via a cartoon avatar in the vein of Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics. We learn that although he was experiencing creative and professional success at the time of the attack, he was struggling personally. In his narrative, the mugging not only adds new traumas, but brings into nightmarish focus lifelong problems: loneliness, self-destructive tendencies, and a lack of self-confidence.

The attack also leaves him in an existential quandary regarding his work. What's the point of superheroes if no one's there to actually save you when you need it? Why bother with cartoons if they do nothing to help in reality? He feels betrayed by his main characters: Batman was no hero to him, and Joker's villainy now repulses him.

Dini imagines himself both taunted and cajoled by his characters as they guide him through his lowest of lows. And gradually, he heals. He starts looking at his problems head-on instead of turning to denial and drink. He realizes that maybe Batman hasn't let him down after all, and that his work does have value.

On an extremely personal note, seeing the depth of these "conversations" between Dini and his characters and Dini and himself was somewhat of a relief to me. I always have characters in my head (confession: imaginary cover bands "play" all my iPod music for me, I know all of the bandmates' names, etc), and when I talk to myself as myself, I'm horrible to myself. If a friend was being talked to by a significant other the way I talk to myself, I'd tell them to get out of that relationship. I'd have the car running outside for their escape. It's a relief to know I'm not too weird (maybe just writer-weird) for the characters, and that others struggle with the awful self-talk too.

The book is a must for mature fans of Batman: The Animated Series, but its artistry, and its insight into creativity, mental health, and trauma, should earn it a wider audience.

Flying Falstaff Joker: art by Dick Sprang (really), Charles Paris, and Greg Theakston, originally from Batman #63 in 1951 (reprinted in The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told)
Much Ado photos: photos by Alessandra Mello for Cal Shakes's Facebook
Dark Night cover: art by Eduardo Risso

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