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. …