In the “The SuperHero and His Charming Wife,” actions speak louder than words
By Christina Campodonico
Superheroes flying faster than a speeding bullet or taking out bad guys with a “Ka-Pow!” are de rigueur in the DC or Marvel universes of comics, TV and movies, but a little less expected in the world of live theater — unless of course you’re seeing a Not Man Apart show.
The physical theater ensemble known for injecting vigorous movement into scripted dramas such as Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” or “Pericles” opens its new originally scripted show, “The SuperHero and His Charming Wife,” on Friday at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica.
And they aren’t afraid of throwing (fake) punches or taking a few tumbles in order to move a story from point A to B or, more literally, from one end of the stage to the other.
“When something needs to be larger than life it happens: they tumble, they fight, they are pretty powerful movers,” says Michelle Broussard, the show’s choreographer. “They’re fearless. Badass.”
But “The SuperHero and His Charming Wife” is about more than physical feats. It charts the collapse of a superhero’s marriage after he discovers that his wife, Julie, has the remarkable ability to change into different women (played by multiple actresses).
If the play sounds a little surreal, that’s because it is. Director, writer and Not Man Apart Associate Artistic Director Aaron Hendry first developed the material for the show from a dream he had when he was 22.
“I had a dream 20 years ago that was very abstract and very absurd, and I sat and wrote down the dream and ended up writing this script that really was kind of an exploration of the idea of constancy versus fluidity,” explains Hendry, who revisited the work decades later when Not Man Apart was looking to develop a completely original show.
The initial dream wasn’t exactly about superheroes, but Hendry found definitive characters in the superhero archetypes and myths that abound in Western culture.
“Western superheroes, we don’t create them for ourselves as people in order to change the world or create world peace or even solve problems. What they’re there to do is keep order,” Hendry says. “They do amazing things we can’t do to keep us safe and battle chaos.”
Hendry deposited the abstract ideas from his decades-old dream into the character Hero, a career superhero who strips himself of all his weaknesses to keep on defending the world day after day.
Yet the play is not simply focused on the protagonist’s heroic actions, but his internal state of mind, says Not Man Apart’s Co-Artistic Director Jones Welsh, who also plays Hero.
“The superhero stories we’ve been seeing are really external about what’s happening in the world. We’re showing the emotional landscape or the dreamscape, what’s going on within the person with their own superhero villain or superhero battles going on within themselves,” says Welsh.
Hero’s Kryptonite is not so much a physical thing, but a psychological storeroom of emotional baggage, Welsh explains: “My character has locked away certain possibilities. That was the Achilles heel. That’s what causes the downfall — the blind spots.”
While Hero must contend with his own demons, Julie is going through her own tumultuous personal battles.
“The story is as much Julie’s as it is Hero’s,” says Not Man Apart Co-Artistic Director Laura Covelli, who plays Julie the Changed, the iteration of Hero’s wife who goes through a dramatic transformation. “[She’s] grown into a place in her life where she’s stuck and she’s not able to be who she is in the relationship.”
But like any woman approaching big milestones in her life — puberty, marriage, childbirth, menopause — Julie must reevaluate her sense of self and relationship to others.
“I think [Julie’s] one of the characters that’s actually the most grounded in reality. Even though she’s a superhero’s wife, she’s a wife-wife. She’s not a criminal. She doesn’t have special super powers — except that she can change into other people,” says Covelli.
Creating such strange super powers on stage is what made movement a natural choice for expressing the play’s themes, says Hendry. He believes that the body possesses an “intuitive logic” that communicates not only emotions but also universal truths about the human experience.
“The body can express thoughts very well. It can even express feelings very well. But what it really expresses is experience. It expresses those intuitive things where we know something is right. It may not make sense, but it’s right or not right … and surrealism and dreams have that in common,” muses Hendry.
For a play that borders on the surreal and relies heavily on emotion to tell its story, the body was the ideal instrument of communication, explains Hendry.
“I knew we were driving into a world where there were going to have to be some moments that were logical sense, but also some moments that were intuitive sense — some moments where the world wasn’t going to work the way that our planet does,” he says. “But we had to find a way that, as a viewer and audience member, we go along because we have that experience of truth. We have that experience of rightness. And I think the body can do it in a way that words can’t.”
Broussard agrees, citing a rehearsal of the movement segment, “Julie’s Leaving.”
“We gathered all of these women that are representing parts of Julie’s subconscious or representing part of her past and future self and had a really deep soul-searching emotional moment. … It brought the dancers to a pretty painful place, but what came out of that was such gut-wrenching movement,” says Broussard.
In the “The SuperHero and His Charming Wife,” actions speak louder than words.
“The SuperHero and His Charming Wife” opens at 8:30 p.m. Friday, April 15, and continues through May 15 at Highways Performance Space, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica. For ticket and show info, visit highwaysperformance.org.