Volo Publius is a complicated character. The masked man stands for classic superhero sensibilities, standing up for the downtrodden and thwarting government corruption at every turn. But vigilante justice raises its own complexities that Volo and his associates have to deal with: how far is too far? Do the ends really justify the means? At what point does heroism become fanaticism? The Making of a Modern Folk Hero by Other Theatre sees the hero narrative applied to modern day social activism but only somewhat capitalizes on its potential. While it gains marks for inventive use of set design and some sharp dialogue, the overall narrative unfortunately feels a tad too disjointed to deliver a completely satisfying performance.
The story opens on a failed actor live streaming his imminent suicide, only to be interrupted by an old college roommate. The roommate, a high ranking politician, expresses his frustration with the ineffective policies of his administration and alludes to a story he previously heard about a masked vigilante who was able to affect real change in his community by physically stopping a community from being bulldozed. The two then hatch a plan to create their own masked hero, Volo Publius, to act on inside government information to organize strategic protests to stop injustices wherever they may lurk. However, Volo soon becomes a cult of personality that scales into something larger than life; an incredibly powerful force that expedites social reform but also causes collateral damage in the process.
If the previous description of the suicide immediately juxtaposed with the creation of a silly superhero seems jarring, that is because it is. Brevity of scenes and narrative beats are a great way to keep the audience engaged, but in the case of Folk Hero it serves only to leave the audience confused as to how the characters can turn on a dime in terms of tone and motivation. Using the opener as an example, there was a classic ‘call to action’ from the politician, but the scene desperately needed a more fleshed out ‘refusal of the call’ to show that the character really is at the end of his rope and took ending his life seriously before this opportunity turns him around. Instead, for the sake of brevity, the failed actor shrugs it off and launches directly into the next part of the narrative. Disjointed character moments like this pepper the script, and when paired with some very evident plot holes in the overarching narrative it serves to leave the audience confused.
The narrative is not without its strengths, though - it knows not to take itself too seriously and has some great comedic timing to break up the dramatic elements. The humor is a blend of slapstick, prop and dramatic comedy that mix well together; the narrative may be hard to follow, but the comedy is not.
The production also needs to be lauded for its inventive use of set design; Other Theatre clearly took to heart the themes of superhero films and comic books when designing its set. The star of the stage is a large screen that uses overhead projectors to display puppeteered images and figures that help the audience imagine Volo’s grand acts of heroism. The choice to do this on a small scale was excellent. The minimalistic images give the audience the framework to imagine the most outrageous version of the events taking place and smartly lets the audience sell themselves on the incredible deeds performed by Volo.
While the overall narrative could stand to be edited, the premise and excellent stage design make for an entertaining 90 minutes. Whether or not those elements justify the $25 price of admission is entirely up to you.
Review by Ryan Moore
The Making of a Modern Folk Hero continues at Chicago Dramatists through October 29. More info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.