I will admit – comic book characters have been adapted into so many movies lately I was skeptical to see how well an adaptation of a 1940’s comic strip would translate into a full blown play. After all, how could a black box theatre production hope to compete with the scope of big-screen, computer generated depictions of epic battles between good and evil? The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil, however, finds a wonderfully charming voice with its use of masterful stage design, expert fight choreography, and incredibly sharp writing to produce an experience that does not disappoint. While some scenes drag and some plot points are not as well thought out as others, The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil is a fantastic adaptation of a comic that commits fully to cultivating the signature lighthearted entertainment of classic vintage superheroines.
The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil (an original work by Babes with Blades Ensemble member Barbara Lhota) follows the adventures of the titular Scarlet, who obtains the power of invisibility after a freak accident in her father’s top secret science lab amidst a break-in from KGB spies. Scarlet then gets caught in the middle of a sinister plot to develop a weaponized mind-control serum and, in classic comic book fashion, must stop the evil-doers from completing the formula before it’s too late.
The story is very on-the-nose, as to be expected with a superhero story, but the breadth of what Babes with Blades Theatre Company does with this platform is impressive. The dialogue and character interactions are top-notch; physical comedy, sharp witticisms and running gags are all combined with drama that never takes itself too seriously to create a treat of a script that is well acted by all members of the cast. The commitment to the 1940’s setting is seen here as well: lines like “go sit on a nail” and “three sheets to the wind” pepper the dialogue to sell the distinctly vintage feel the production was going for.
While the writing in the vast majority of these scenes work, the production sometimes struggles with certain character arcs and plot points that serve to muddle the overall sharp writing. The relationship between the heroine and the sidekick felt under-developed and could serve to “show instead of tell." We are told that the sidekick has a tragic backstory, but it is hard to believe when we have already seen so much rich exposition for other characters played out in front of us. The production’s main arc also struggles with its overall length, especially in the second act. Plot development drags in service of creating drawn out (but entertaining and comical) scenes which creates some minor issues with pacing. Lastly, the final confrontation felt like a satisfying conclusion and could have served as a tantalizing cliff hanger, however the actual final scene served as a less-engaging recap of events that the audience was already privy to.
These minor flaws, however, are forgiven thanks to the incredible stage design, which spares no expense to blur the line between play and super-heroine comic strip. The backdrop is divided into comic book segments where cartoon backgrounds are projected. Choreographed fight scenes are synchronized with splash bubbles of “pows!” and “bangs." Internal monologues are conveyed through projected thought bubbles and scene transitions are narrated through stylized text that would not be out of place in any comic strip. The stage crew should be lauded for their attention to detail as they nailed almost every aspect of the vintage comic book aesthetic; the elements are just present to accentuate but do not get in the way of the actors’ performances and are varied enough to keep the audience guessing.
The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil is a very entertaining work that engages the audience with its hilarious comedy and visually spectacular stage design. While it drags in parts and not all plot points work, the spectacle of the comic-panel set design and hilarious writing make for a production well worth the price of admission.
Review by Ryan Moore
The Invisible Scarlet O'Neill continues through October 14th at The Factory Theatre. More information here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.
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