The label “comic book adaptation” in the context of theatre may inspire dubious or outright derisive assumptions for many, but rest assured, this is not kids’ stuff on any level, as both the adaptive approach and the source material are both of a calibre the uninitiated would not likely expect.
For the benefit of those uninitiated, a little background may be helpful. Even amongst readers of superhero comics, Miracleman is comparatively obscure, and long out of print. It is notable to aficionados, however, as a major early work of Alan Moore, the most eminent writer in the English-language comics field of the last 30 years, almost single-handedly responsible for the maturing of comics as a valid medium for legitimate literature and its adoption of the less pejorative term “graphic novel.” Although considered a creative master in his field, Moore has had a cantankerous relationship with his corporate publishers over the decades and has refused involvement in (or even credit for) recent film adaptations of his seminal works such as From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlmen, V for Vendetta and the forthcoming Watchmen. Something of a performance artist himself, one can’t help but wonder if Moore might not look more favourably on this oddball, intensely creative stage adaptation.
Originally published in 1982, Miracleman was a classic example of the kind of material which made Moore famous - the philosophically-tinged deconstruction of superhero mythologies. In brief, the story concerns Mike Moran, an unremarkable married man in his forties who is plagued by dreams of flying and terrible headaches. When chance leads him to utter the word “Kimota” (“atomic” backwards), Moran finds himself transformed into the awesomely powerful Miracleman. Realising that he has suffered from amnesia for decades and that as a boy he had a superhero career in the form of this adult alter-ego, Moran goes on a journey of personal rediscovery. However his origin and youthful adventures, it turns out, were not at all what they seemed, and a dark and mind-expanding conspiracy comes to light.
And now, to the play…
Adapted and performed by Bruce Woolley and Bernard Caleo, two old friends and longtime performers, the way in which they tackle this seemingly unstageable content is quite something to behold. Any fears of a pair of “comic book geeks” making fools of themselves on stage should be immediately dispelled. This production is a deeply performative affair that combines many layers and techniques of open theatricality that renders the piece almost more like a work of experimental theatre or performance art than a conventional play. As a two-man show, Woolley and Caleo do everything, not only performing all the characters but also operating the lighting and providing sound effects and music both vocally and on a variety of instruments. Utilising elements reminiscent of improv, mime and puppetry, they portray characters and actions in a variety of ways, often representing the same type of act – flying, for example – in a multitude of completely different methods throughout the show.
Although quite a few props are used and to great effect, the overall approach is that of two highly physical performers employing an essentially bare performance area to evoke a wide variety of impossible scenes through sheer imaginative evocation. The clever and tremendously diverse methods of storytelling they employ create an overall effect of genuine theatrical magic.
Stylistically and structurally, their adaptation has a few issues that some patrons might struggle with, particularly those unfamiliar with such a mélange of anti-naturalistic performance techniques, or if they are expecting a “superhero comic” to equate to silly childishness, or both. One thing that seemed to throw a few patrons on the night I attended was that the opening segment of the play portrays the bold, cheesy, traditionally “comic book” style, complete with outrageously square-jawed pomposity and British pluck, leading to an almost Pythonesque flavour. This segment represented Moore’s prologue to Miracleman, presenting the ridiculous innocence of 1956 comics (and, in context, the nature of Moran’s childhood memories) as a contrast to the grim, postmodern reality of the rest of the tale.
Shrewdly using empty picture frames to delimit moments of action or expression like comic book panels, the stage adaptation of this opening sequence taken at face value could lead one to expect the rest of the production to follow in a similar vein, so when Moore’s nuanced, dramatic deconstruction comes to the fore, it is a drastic tonal shift. This works brilliantly if one is savvy to its purpose, but for some perhaps it was a touch confusing, and seemingly as a result of this the performance got a lot more laughs than was probably intended.
Woolley and Caleo are equally talented performers, and totally in their element. As both the actors and adaptors, their command of and commitment to the material is evident, and they have a terrific chemistry, pulling off this complex show with astonishing slickness. Although each playing multiple roles and even swapping characters, Woolley primarily portrays Moran/Miracleman while Caleo mainly alternates as wife Liz, mad scientist Dr. Gargunza and Johnny Bates, the former sidekick Kid Miracleman who has since become profoundly evil.
Caleo plays these roles with great distinction of character, particularly excelling as the palpably sinister Bates who, although this is not included in the narrative covered by this adaptation, would later go on to decimate London and massacre 40,000 people with his bare hands. In an appropriate contrast, Woolley depicts Moran and his superhuman alter-ego with great economy and a disarming poignancy, portraying the dual persona of everyman and demigod with engrossing nuance.
Embracing Moore’s use of metafiction with their own lashings of metatheatricality, Woolley and Caleo’s adaptation of Miracleman is stimulating, powerful and immensely entertaining. Enthusiastically recommended.
Venue: The Croft Institute | Croft Alley, Melbourne
(Croft Alley is off Paynes Place, off Little Bourke Street between
Exhibition and Russell Streets)
Dates: 2 - 12 July 2008
Times: Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8pm; Fridays and Saturdays at 6.30pm
Bookings: 9497 8098