note: entire contents copyright 2014 by Sheila Barth
It’s not often theatergoers and critics get deliriously excited about a new play.
At Company One’s New England premiere of Natsu Onoda Power’s highly innovative, multimedia play, “Astro Boy and the God of Comics,” the excitement begins pre-performance. Then, for the next 80 minutes, it accelerates into high gear.
A huge background screen blasts a series of questions and answers about Japanese cartoon robotic wonder boy, Astro Boy, and his creator, Osamu Tezuka, father-creator of manga, or Japanese comic books.
One compelling question is, Who is Astro Boy? Answer: a super power cartoon character, known in Japan as the Mighty Atom. He’s a childlike, scientist-created robot, who performs good and kindly deeds, promotes environmental consciousness and peace. When Tezuka created him in the 1950s, as a futuristic super robot of 2003, he couldn’t predict his biggest fan (who met him when she was 12 years old) would resurrect him and his boy wonder, making Astro Boy more reminiscent than the supersonic little Japanese hero was meant to be.
Power grew up in Japan, watching her beloved Astro Boy cartoons. She wished she possessed the master‘s talent. No worries. She has excelled in her own right, especially with this production, that traces Tezuka’s life and career and resurrects Astro Boy, while exploring Tezuka’s intention to intersect science, art and family,
In fact, Power wrote the book on it - “God of Comics: Osamu Tezuka and the Creation of Post World War II Manga,” in 2009. In her 2012 play, she personifies and glorifies Tezuka and his lovable, robotic superboy. Power actually started writing this play 10 years ago, but finished and premiered it in 2012 at Studio Theatre 2nd Stage, in Washington, D.C., where it earned rave reviews.
In Boston, “Astro Boy” is presented through XXPlayLab, a program created with Company One and the Boston Center for the Arts that supports and develops female playwrights’ works.
Between movie clips, artistic renderings, and actors performing on the Plaza Theatre stage, scenes shift from sentimental to sensational, serendipitous to destructive.
Starting with an explosive ending, then kaleidoscopically scrolling back to the beginning, from now (2014) to 1928, Power shifts between several episodes of the adorable, huge-eyed hero with two-spiked hair, and simultaneously tracing Tezuka’s biography and career.
Although Astro Boy looks sweetly boyish, he has astounding powers. He speaks 60 languages, flies like a space rocket, and battles menacing enemies, like Mr. Disposer, a ballooning, black garbage bag-type creature. His IQ is astounding. His super-cute, large eyes double as light sensors. His flying speed is jaw-dropping. And his final mission to save mankind is self-sacrificing. With a bomb strapped to his back, Astro Boy flies into the sun, to avert deadly radiation blasts reaching Earth. Ker-smash!
Projection designer Jared Mezzocchi’s perpetual assault, accompanied by Justin Paice’s lighting effects, Kelsey Jarboe’s stirring audio design, and the cast’s boundless energy on stage, in the aisles, among theatergoers, and offstage, are relentless, thrilling the audience. (Mezzocchi also performed his video wizardry in D.C.)
Without warning, Power shifts from Astro Boy to Tezuka, tracing his disappointment at 13 years old, when the Japanese government banned comic books and cartoon drawing, during World War II. Although cartoonists were arrested, Tezuka secretly drew cartoons during air raids. After America’s occupation of Japan, post-war laws eased up, and Tezuka resumed his coveted career, eventually achieving global fame with his Astro Boy movies, TV series, and comic books, and deemed the Walt Disney of Japan.
In one stirring episode, there’s a terrifying car crash. The vehicle careens, its tires screeching, leaving a little boy named Astro Boynton lifeless, on the ground. The child is Astro Boy’s prototype, created in the image of the play’s grieving scientist’s son.
It’s amazing to watch this ensemble construct and assemble the little robot out of simple materials, from his feet and legs, up to his head, then watch it evolve into a living, breathing character.
Power’s versatile skill and low-key approach belies her immense talent and her ability to draw the best from her cast and crew. Power chooses actors who are agile, versatile, and can draw large pictures quickly, on a timed basis. Their cooperative drawings on large, movie-screen paper canvases, are background scenes for puppets flying around on stage, and merge with the actors as they morph into film footage.
Gianella Flores portraying Astro Boy is charming, adorable, acrobatic, artistic, agile, and astounding at times, from her initial appearance to her smashing finish. Talented Clark Young, who portrays a fictitious form of Tezuka, is Power’s former student and appeared in the Washington, D.C. production. Phil Berman, Robert St. Laurence, Amanda Ruggiero, Jessica Chance, Kaitee Tredway, and Jeff Song round out this super cast.
In a post-show discussion, humble playwright Power said she knew she’d never be good enough to emulate her iconic Tezuka, who died in 1989. but she loves what she does and is deeply committed to her craft. Her primary goal as a playwright and assistant professor of theater at Georgetown University is to marry theater, science, art, and family values.
BOX INFO: Multimedia play, written,designed, and directed by Natsu Onoda Power, appearing with award-winning Company One Theatre, through Aug. 16, at the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre, 539 Tremont St., South End, Boston: Wednesday, Thursday, at 7:30 p.m., Friday, Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Tickets, $20-$38. Visit www.CompanyOne.org or call 617-292-7110.