For this idea-packed 70-minute excursion into the life and work of cartoonist legend Osamu Tezuka, who created the ’60s Japanese robot action hero Astro Boy, Power appropriates the tools of other graphic and creative arts — cartooning, animation, video, drawing, illustration, puppetry — and shows us what it feels like to exert an exuberant control over them all. The piece, performed by eight actors dashing about as if they were cartoon characters over-hydrated on energy drinks, tries out its own act of animation on the spirit of an artist. And it does so in lovingly virtuoso style, the likes of which Washington theater has not encountered.
This may be the show to demonstrate to those whose eyes don’t normally shift for long from their warm, glowing hand-helds that the stage can offer the same sort of mesmerizing captivation. Power, a Georgetown University theater professor who once led a Chicago troupe called Live Action Cartoonists, has her own singular approach to storytelling, which places an exclamation point on the visual but does not entirely neglect the emotional. To watch as her actors draw for you the huddled bodies of Japanese mothers and children awaiting atomic annihilation is to be reminded of the visceral impact made possible by a representational imprint of horror.
When I say draw, I mean the cast actually does. In several scenes, three or four actors pick up markers or charcoal and get to work on small pads, or mural-size pieces of paper hanging from the back wall of Luciana Stecconi’s amazing scenic design, which is made to look like the innards of a TV set. There, they communally compose a caricature of Tezuka, or illustrate an incident from the Astro Boy story.
The drawing is astonishingly quick — that’s part of the fun — but also so compelling for a spectator that you sometimes filter out another key facet of the evening: what the actors are saying. “Astro Boy and the God of Comics” is like a hyper-entertaining college course whose semester has been processed down to an hour and 10 minutes, and woe to those who haven’t kept up with the reading.
The show has a lot of information to impart — about Astro Boy’s origins, Tezuka’s biography, the animation world in general — all of which is integrated into Power’s physical concept. Just as Astro Boy was conceived as a robot yearning for a full-fledged human boyhood, the show constantly mixes cartoon life with our perceptions of dramatic reality. A title card on an easel comes alive with a pair of moving, human lips; a three-dimensional cartoon doll is projected into a cinematic landscape; a story of a cartoonist’s power struggle with a studio conjoins live actors and some primitive technical conventions of animation.