I'm not a big fan of comics or superheroes, so I was somewhat apprehensive about Funky Little Theater Company's latest show. Men of Steel turned out to be a clever but disturbing experience. Clever because Qui Nguyen's script mixes the superhero genre with cutting social commentary. Men of Steel, however, is also disturbing. Nguyen tells his story with both realistic and cartoon violence.
The play's social commentary focuses on two themes. The first is that violence in ghettos is tolerated, but violence in a middle-class neighborhood brings a superhero response. Nguyen also takes on domestic violence. Shocking displays of violence are visited upon Mommy (played by Haley Hunsaker) and her son Hurt (Josh Boehnke).
Hunsaker and Boehnke deliver Mommy and Hurt in agonizing detail. Hunsaker's battered Mommy does what many women do in her situation — she suffers in silence to protect her young son (Evan Slavens). Slavens, an eighth-grader, is strong in a role well beyond his years. Hurt is Mommy's adult child, forever changed by his childhood trauma. He will endure any beating for a price. The damage done is difficult to watch, largely because of Boehnke's stellar performance.
Luke Schoenemann is no stranger to the Funky stage, but Men of Steel is far and away his best Funky work. He plays five roles, each distinct and believable. His portrayal of a raging bully is the one that you will remember when you leave the theater. Schoenemann is monstrous as he manifests both the rage and the perverse pleasure of inflicting unbearable pain on another human being.
The cartoon characters are, of course, very cartoonish. Chris Medina (Captain Justice), Chris Jordahl (Maelstrom) and Meghan Lastrella (Liberty Lady) all look great in tights, but their talent exceeds the required level of acting. Still, Jordahl was a standout in the cartoon club, with his towering stature and his menacing voice. The superhero characters benefit greatly from the colorful costumes designed by Delaney Hallauer, Hunsaker and Teri McClintock.
Nguyen's script is choppy; there are three separate story arcs spinning around onstage simultaneously. They are tied together by the thin thread of the superhero framework. Men of Steel correctly reminds us that underneath the cape and tights, superheroes are regular people in extraordinary circumstances.
Dylan McClintock's direction is of the "no holds barred" variety, making this a worthy evening of theater. McClintock is focused and pays careful attention to both the comedy and the tragedy. It's a delicate balance; "Bam! Pow! Zap!" superheroes are followed by a male hooker and ghetto kids looking for social justice. McClintock weaves them into a bumpy but coherent passage from fantasy to reality. His venture into video projections, however, was a weak spot. A 15-second video blackout left the audience wondering what they missed.
Men of Steel comes with a serious warning. The language is vulgar, and the violence is stomach-churning. Still, if you're a fan of superheroes and/or comics, or if you like theater that will jerk you out of your comfort zone, Men of Steel is your show.
Despite my initial anxiety, Funky's production reminded me that I should spend more time in my "discomfort" zone.