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If Macon City: A Comic Book Play were running anywhere in South Florida other than the Naked Stage, it would probably fall on its ass. Its very premise might be too much for local audiences to accept. It wouldn't be surprising if it had an almost equally hard time in New York. Imagine a play that's cheesy by choice, whose internal consistency and logic hang together about as well as a 12-year-old's back-yard game of superhero make-believe. Then imagine the play really is a game of superhero make-believe and that rather than try to cover it up — as have recent ill-advised superhero romps in other venues (Batman Begins) — everyone involved acknowledges the cheese, revels in it, amplifies it even, and mines it for every scrap of capital-F Fun it contains. That's what's going on at the Naked Stage. The company is uniquely situated to make it work either because the members don't take themselves seriously or because they take themselves completely seriously. Bet you can't figure out which one it is.
Macon City's plot is your basic dystopian graphic novel boilerplate. Long ago, the place was prosperous. People came and went. Then something bad happened, and political power was consolidated in the hands of a very few people. A race of "defenders," who once kept order within the city, faded into myth. The skies grew dark, and the skyline began to look like teeth.
As is often the case with the plays of Miami writer Marco Ramirez (who's studying at Juilliard), most of this is expressed indirectly. Macon City's history is never specifically articulated; rather, its shapes suggest themselves through Antonio Amadeo's darkly giddy postapocalyptic set and the strange sci-fi/impressionist poetry of a narrator. Much of the narration is difficult to parse at first — something about carnivorous asphalt and hungry concrete — but its meaning is clear in essence. Macon City is a bad place, and nobody is there by choice. As somebody says early on: "Tickets out of Macon City just don't exist anymore."
The jarringly lovely Jasmine Fluker plays the narrator, billed as "Caption" in the program. (It's a comic book, get it?) She seems almost too sweet — too wide-eyed, too demonstrative, too young — to handle lines about carnivorous cities. But she presses on. Soon, as other actors enter and a plot forms, Fluker begins shapeshifting. She presses herself into a trash heap to take on the persona of an old homeless man, or morphs into a young girl trapped in a sewer. What began as simple gawkiness begins to look like a kind of interpretive dance, as the minor dramas of her movements transform the small stage into a city and then populate it.
In her city, two young pickpockets sift through trash and bitch about life. Jaime (Scott Genn) is an excitable, affable, good-natured buffoon; Frankie (David Hemphill) is a self-deprecating wise-ass. Soon enough, it falls to these unprepossessing characters to acknowledge their true natures and take on two bad guys: a mad scientist and a secret psycho killer who, horrifically, has recently surgically grafted the mayor's face onto his own head and now seeks to destroy the city by releasing a dam and...
Well, forget the story. It hardly matters. More important is Antonio Amadeo's set, which turns a stage barely bigger than a bathroom into a wonderland of dark alleys, sludge-filled sewers, and filthy hidden laboratories. Then there's John Manzelli's directing, which ekes out of this cast performances big and bold enough to make the material look daring.
You wouldn't think two middle-aged actors would carry the show in a play so youthful-minded, but they do. Everyone in Macon City is fine, but Alyn Darnay and Hugh Murphy — who play Dr. Wells and the evil mayor — are on fire. Murphy, who bears a more than passing resemblance to John Lithgow, looks like he has waited his whole life to be so bad. His manic laughter stretches his jaws so wide it appears he's trying to eat the audience. And for one moment at the end of the play, Darnay somehow re-creates a visual effect known mostly to youngsters who watch animé: In a moment of extreme emotional duress, he plunges his hand into the darkness above his head and opens his eyes wide. As he does so, the flesh around his eye sockets quivers — for decades, that's how certain animators have indicated insanity, but I've never seen a human being approximate it before. In Macon City, ink becomes life.
That is the reason Macon City can work nowhere else but the Naked Stage. There, John Manzelli and Antonio Amadeo (and usually Katherine Amadeo, though she's busy acting elsewhere right now) don't simply put on shows. They create whole worlds in the tiny Pelican Theatre — worlds that seduce through music, sound, light, and even emissaries; actors uncalled for in the script wander the stage before curtain up, locating the audience in whatever crazy universe Manzelli and the Amadeos have built. No matter how grim or childish those universes may be, there always seems to be something fun about them. Macon City isn't a place you'd want to live, but visiting there might be kind of exciting. And it is. After the show, as theatergoers chatted about the thoroughly novel night they'd just had, one could almost see speech bubbles burst above their heads like balloons.
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