Superhero tales make your eyes pop with the vivid colors and fight sequences, and your pulse race with the daring escapes... but what about your heart? It’s an organ that’s often overlooked, yet we couldn’t experience our other thrilling reactions to comics without it. So it’s fitting that it takes center stage in Flux Theatre Ensemble’s Hearts Like Fists, a delightful superhero comedy noir.
Playwright Adam Szymkowicz threads the themes of love, but also the literal heart, throughout his play so masterfully that it never devolves into gimmickry. The dastardly Dr. X (Flux’s Artistic Director August Schulenburg) is sneaking into the homes of young lovers and injecting them in their sleep with a lethal poison. After normal girl Lisa (Marnie Schulenburg) is able to take on Doctor X, the Crimefighters—Sally (Aja Houston), Jazmin (Rachael Hip-Flores), and Nina (Becky Byers)—recruit her to join their ranks.
But it turns out Lisa has a “power” of her own—men fall hopelessly in love with her. Which is bad news for Peter (Chinaza Uche), a doctor who is creating an artificial heart to replace his own failing organ, broken too many times. These dilemmas and conflicts are played out with a healthy coating of self-awareness, but they never come across as cynical. As Schulenburg writes in the program, “With the heart treacherous and happiness fickle as the weather, we settle for her more sober sister, purpose; or if that proves too hard, we just settle.” These mini-revelations, combined with the kick-ass fight scenes, infuse the show with boundless energy.
My knowledge of noir is limited, but the theme of “loving the wrong guy/gal” is put to great use here. With his feeble heart, Peter should be the last man that Lisa is bringing under her spell, and yet his rejection of her only spurs her on because that’s never happened to her before. Doctor X lives in a fantasy world of true love after a one-night stand, whereas his beloved “girl with a face like a plate” has a much more cynical worldview. Lucky for him, one of the Crimefighters is grappling with her own confusing feelings for the evil doctor.
The comic-book influences are clear down to the most minor detail. The set pieces are simple so that you can better appreciate the floor, which is decorated with the kinds of technicolor “pow” and “wham” sound effects you used to see more often in superhero panels. The Crimefighters’ outfits are reminiscent of Sally Jupiter’s getup in Watchmen. They communicate with the shadowy Commissioner, whose archetypically gruff voice is put to ironic use in one scene where he and Sally awkwardly plan out a lunch date. (“Uh… does Wednesday work?”) The fight sequences utilize slow-mo K.O. shots where members of the ensemble lift up the character to deliver that final superhuman kick to the chest.
The mood is also reminiscent of Silver Age comics. Whereas many present-day comic book tales strive to incorporate social media and the internet, there is a refreshing lack of computers or other technology to ground this in a specific date. In look and speech, the Crimefighters bring to mind ‘50s bombshells; they communicate over wrist comlinks; and while a quick Google search would help them uncover Doctor X’s identity, instead they go undercover as nurses at the very hospital where he used to work.
Like the ideal superhero team, the cast gels together fantastically, whether they’re tossing one-liners over their shoulders, scaling apartment buildings, or giving rambling speeches on purpose and evil plans. An early training sequence, where the Crimefighters incorporate dialogue into some truly impressive sparring, demonstrates the actors’ dedication to embodying these roles. You truly believe that they could keep you and your heart safe from the bitter supervillains armed with syringes.
Hearts Like Fists is cartoonish, but in the comforting, nostalgic way of Saturday morning programs; not to mention incredibly sharp. It’s the perfect way to round out 2012, the year of superhero movies, giving us hope that more of these stories will pass on to indie theater.
Hearts Like Fists runs through December 15th, at the Secret Theatre in Queens, New York (4402 23rd Street). Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7p.m. Tickets ($18; $15 students) may be purchased online at www.fluxtheatre.org or by calling (866)811-4111.
Photos: Isaiah Tanenbaum
Natalie Zutter is a playwright, foodie, and the co-creator of Leftovers, a webcomic about food trucks in the zombie apocalypse. Her writing has appeared on Ology and Crushable, where she discusses celebrity culture alongside internet memes (or vice versa). Weekly you can find her commenting on pop culture on KoPoint’s podcast AFK On Air, and on Twitter.