“Who is Astro Boy? Where did he come from?”
That phrase was repeated in an audio loop, flowing over cheerful marching music, while actors furiously drew cartoons of an impending horror. It might as well have been my own question, coming into Astro Boy and the God of Comics at The Studio 2ndStage without any prior knowledge of artist Osamu Tezuka or of his cartoon creations. That phrase seemed to be the lynchpin of the play’s meaning. It stayed with me for several days, running through my mind, unwilling to be forgotten.
A real boy dies in a horrible accident. A robot boy is created to take his place.
Created and directed by Natsu Onoda Power, Astro Boy and the God of Comics is a seventy minute riff on creation and destruction from both the creative and historical angles. We learn about the brilliant Tezuka through episodes presented in reverse chronological order – seamless mash-ups of live action, video, projections and puppetry. It’s a dizzying concoction that might almost seem gimmicky if it weren’t for the production’s total commitment to the bright-eyed, vivid intensity of comics.
Honestly? It might be a bit genius.
Power is an unabashed champion of Tezuka’s work (her time with Chicago’s Live Action Cartoonists informs this production) and that enthusiasm drives the play at every level. Simply from a technical standpoint, Astro Boy amazes. The acting ensemble is completely integrated into the animation style (Joe Brack, Jamie Gahlon, Lee Liebeskind, Karen O’Connell, Betsy Rosen, JB Tadena, Kristin Watson, Clark Young – all deserve strong recognition), and work in perfect harmony with the technical aspects of the production. Jared Mezzocchi’s projections and Andrew Griffin’s lighting design are flawlessly matched.
That technical perfection allows the real to merge with the drawn, as images of Tezuka’s imagination almost bloom before the viewer. Bodies become bomb clouds, light becomes tears, puppets soar and actors paint action through voice alone in comic book soundbites – these moments continue to haunt me, yet to describe them more fully might ruin their full effect on another viewer. I want them to bloom for you too, and I suspect every audience member will see something unique to their own filter of experience.
As short as the play may seem, Astro Boy has a lot to say about the heartbreak of human nature, creation and history’s stamp on our development. World War II and the horrors of the atomic bomb marked Tezuka’s development as an artist, and the madcap frivolity that informs comics can be seen here to mask, or perhaps heal, a deep wound. Its multimedia environment is truly daring, and its darker exploration of the creative process and the genesis of ideas can take hold of your subconscious until you are utterly hooked.
The Studio 2ndStage‘s production of Astro Boy and the God of Comics performs at the Studio Theatre through March 11, located at 1501 14th Street NW, Washington, DC 20005. Closest Metro stop: McPherson Square (Orange/Blue lines), U Street/Cardozo (Yellow/Green lines). For more information call (202) 332-3300.