Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa: Pulp Metaphysics; for Inspiration, He Spends His Days with Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four
Wren, Celia, American Theatre
KA-POW!!! KER-BANG!!! THWAAACK!!! KA-BOOM!!
No one ever accused comic books of having a muted aesthetic (viz., the above, the sound of your typical superhero's fist). So it is not too surprising that the plays of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa have made a striking impression on the theatre world of late. This 33-year-old playwright quickens his scripts with techniques and images borrowed from comic books, as well as from horror and science fiction. At least partly for this reason, his work is getting done all over the place.
Manhattan Theatre Club is currently premiering Based on a Totally True Story, a comedy that, while unusually naturalistic for Aguirre-Sacasa, involves a hero who works as a comic-book writer. It's a career that the playwright himself happens to share: He makes his living crafting adventures for Marvel Comics's Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four.
In January, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, in Washington, D.C., launched Aguirre-Sacasa's The Velvet Sky, a phantasmagoric thriller featuring a spooky villain named the Sandman. Later this year, Dark Matters, about alien abduction, makes its way to Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, in New York.
Other Aguirre-Sacasa stagings from recent years include the Shakespeare riff Rough Magic, mounted last year at the Hangar Theatre, in Ithaca, N.Y., and The Mystery Plays, a true-crime-meets-The Twilight Zone spine-tingler that was co-produced in 2004 by New Haven's Yale Repertory Theatre and New York's Second Stage Theatre. His comedy Say You Love Satan--about a gay grad student who falls for guess who--made a splash at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2003.
"He's an ultimate storyteller," says Michael Bush, MTC's director of artistic production and the director of Based on a Totally True Story. "All his time writing comic books has made him very economical, so his plays are story-driven in a way that you're eager to turn the page and find out what happens next."
Yale Rep artistic director James Bundy marvels at Aguirre-Sacasa's "unfettered imagination." And, he adds, "He is very funny. The thing that I love about his plays is that I always know I am going to go on a journey away from anything I've heard of or read."
Carole Rothman, artistic director of Second Stage, where Aguirre-Sacasa has been a playwright-in-residence, agrees that "he looks at the world in a different way." At the same time, she says, "You walk into his plays knowing that there is going to be a very coherent vision. And that's not very usual for a young writer." She predicts, "He's going to do really, really well."
He's not doing too badly right now. In fact, Hollywood has come calling: Currently in the pipeline is the movie Jude Island, adapted from his horror-themed play The Muckle Man (his traumatic experience drafting the screenplay is the "true story" behind Based on a Totally True Story). He is also reworking Dark Matters for Warner Bros.
But his real loves are theatre and comic books, not necessarily in that order. "I'm a lifelong comic-book fanatic," the gangly six-foot-two playwright confessed in late January as he sat in Woolly Mammoth's stark, modernist lobby during a Velvet Sky rehearsal. Growing up in Washington, D.C., he recalls, he used to visit the local 711 store, in the company of his mother, to buy comics and Slurpies. Both his parents are Nicaraguan--their banking careers brought them to the U.S.--and he grew up speaking Spanish.
The theatre bug bit in high school, when he started acting. But the real watershed moment occurred when he saw a Shakespeare Theatre production of Macbeth, directed by Michael Kahn. "The scales fell from my eyes," Aguirre-Sacasa says, "because I saw what live theatre can be--which is sexy and exciting and scary and action-packed."
AFTER GRADUATING FROM GEORGEtown University, Aguirre-Sacasa briefly worked as an editorial assistant at a New York horror-movie magazine ("I would answer fan mail and write captions for gory pictures"), and then headed to McGill University, where he obtained an M.A. in English and wrote his first play. Later he attended Yale School of Drama.
It was as he was preparing to graduate from Yale that he met with, in his words, "the luckiest break ever": Marvel Comics was recruiting young novelists, screenwriters and dramatists, and people at various theatres put the company on Aguirre-Sacasa's trail. He now has a contract that requires him to produce 18 comic books a year, and his purview, initially just the Fantastic Four ("very offbeat superheroes") has recently been expanded to include Marvel's crown jewel, Spider-Man.
The work, he says, dovetails nicely with playwriting. "It uses a different part of my brain," he explains. For example, "You write action continuously when you write a play. In a comic, you have to freeze-frame it. So writing a freeze frame makes me hungry to write the continuous action."
And he's quite aware that his seemingly glamorous day-job makes him highly marketable as a playwright. "People's eyes light up when they hear 'Marvel Comics,'" he observes.
Still, his plays belong to him in a way that his comic work never can. "Other people own these characters, other people invented them," he says of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. "I see myself as the person who's lucky enough for a while to write the adventures of these characters who have existed for decades before me, and will exist for decades after me."
The ownership-of-comics issue, as it happens, sparked a particularly dramatic episode in Aguirre-Sacasa's career. Back in 2003, Dad's Garage, in Atlanta, was debuting a play of his called Archie's Weird Fantasy, in which the title character--the iconic redhead Archie Andrews--was a gay man who worked in a censorship-plagued comics industry. It was not a particularly sunny play: Archie got caught up in the Leopold and Loeb murder case. The show was already in previews when Archie Comic Publications threatened legal action, requiring Aguirre-Sacasa and Dad's Garage to change the title and the characters' names at the last minute.
"It was a little terrifying," recalls current Dad's Garage artistic director Kate Warner, who staged the show. But she notes that the episode was also, in a way, an exhilarating reminder of the medium's relevance. "It made you believe in the power of theatre again," she says.
The playwright agrees that the crisis had an upside. "Getting away from the Archie characters was a really good thing for the play," he says. "It allowed it to deepen in a way that it hadn't before. And we were still trafficking in archetypes: the girl next door, the high school bully, the spoiled rich girl."
MANY OF THE ARCHETYPES IN Aguirre-Sacasa's work so far have been eerie ones: the nightmarish specters in The Velvet Sky, for instance, or the oceanic creature in The Muckle Man. "And that is a turn-off to some people," he admits. "They see it as only a horror or science fiction story. But I think an equal number of people are excited by the idea of embracing the pulp elements that have always been in theatre."
Connie Grappo, who directed the premiere production of The Mystery Plays, thinks that Aguirre-Sacasa's work bridges another significant dichotomy. Contemporary society, she says, is "being very strongly pulled in two directions: toward faith without question, and toward intellectual understanding and explanation of everything. Roberto's plays sit somewhere between those two impulses and combine them in a really smart way."
As a writer, she says, "He's not just interested in our place in society, our place in the family--which many contemporary plays deal with. He's also interested in our place in the universe and larger spiritual issues. But he really knows how to entertain and engage, so these issues play out in familiar popular-cultural forms."
Woolly Mammoth associate artistic director Rebecca Bayla Taichman, who staged The Velvet Sky, agrees that Aguirre-Sacasa "is stretching for large meanings." His work, she says, "is metaphysical--and it is mythic. But because it's so grounded, and because of these wildly paced unfolding plots, it gets at you in a very different way." And she notes, "My sense is that his work is deepening."
In fact, Aguirre-Sacasa himself thinks his work is changing, if only because he's now adopting more naturalistic scenarios: witness Based on a Totally True Story, whose scrutiny of father-son dynamics and boyfriend-boyfriend heartbreak make it, in his words, "essentially a relationship play."
"My agent was so happy when he got Based on a Totally True Story" Aguirre-Sacasa recalls. "He said, 'Wow! No bugaboos to be seen!'"
Celia Wren reviews theatre for the Washington Post, and is a former managing editor of this magazine.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa: Pulp Metaphysics; for Inspiration, He Spends His Days with Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. Contributors: Wren, Celia - Author. Magazine title: American Theatre. Volume: 23. Issue: 4 Publication date: April 2006. Page number: 44+. © 1999 Theatre Communications Group. COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.
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