Maybe, if you ask really politely, Natsu Onoda Power will allow you to get up out of your seat at Studio Theatre, give her hardworking cast a good, swift shove into the wings and leave you alone onstage with all of her marvelous toys.
Okay, that’s totally not going to happen. But even if you’ll never get your hands on the joystick, it’s still safe to say that a visit to her breathtakingly imaginative, eye-delighting performance piece, “Astro Boy and the God of Comics,” will set your inner 10-year-old free. (Attention real 10-year-olds: same effect on your inner 8-year-old!)
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.
Add to this the fact that “Astro Boy and the God of Comics” consists of 10 episodes unfolded in reverse chronology (beginning with Astro Boy’s hero’s death in 2014, and ending with Tezuka’s birth, in 1928), and you have some potential coherence issues. Though I remember watching the eerily primitive Astro Boy cartoons as a kid in the 1960s, and the character reappeared in movies as recently as the mid-2000s, some theatergoers may lack a context for the themes Power sets out. I suspect the director-playwright may be loath to make any pedestrian alterations to her nonlinear construction, but some additional surrender to the need for biographical clarity, especially, at the show’s outset would be helpful.
As a director, Power is doubtless a motivational dynamo, for she elicits eight performances filled with the joy of participating in the project. Let’s just name the players: Joe Brack, Jamie Gahlon, Lee Liebeskind, Karen O’Connell, Betsy Rosen, JB Tadena, Kristin Watson and Clark Young. Their pleasure activates yours; it’s remarkable how free they’re able to seem, executing unusual tasks that require efficiency under pressure. (As Jon Lovitz used to say: “Acting!”)
Just as noteworthy are Power’s technical associates: It’s as if in this Studio 2ndStage production she’s assembling a kind of studio of her own. In conjunction with the superb contributions of Jared Mezzocchi’s projections and Evan Rogers’s soundscape, the lighting by Andrew Griffin and costumes by Frank Labovitz help to imbue Stecconi’s set with a sense of sci-fi enchantment. The efforts, too, of Alex Thomas, the cartoonist who drilled the actors in rapid-fire sketching, are rewardingly apparent.
The episodes of “Astro Boy and the God of Comics” have unique personalities. Some are funny, some mournful. It’s hard to single out any as the epitome of Power’s inventiveness. But there is something about the way the picture is made to emerge in Episode Seven (“Dr. Boynton’s Only Son Dies in a Traffic Accident”) that underlines the buoyant, poignant acts in which Power and her crew engage here. “KERSMASH!” an actor writes in red pen across the accident scene. As goes the cartoon tragedy, so goes the heart.
created and directed by Natsu Onoda Power. Set, Luciana Stecconi; projections, Jared Mezzocchi; lighting, Andrew Griffin; sound and compositions, Evan Rogers; costumes, Frank Labovitz; cartoonist, Alex Thomas. About 70 minutes. Through March 11 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org .