The Performant: Manic pixies

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'Manic Pixie Dream Girl' and 'The Witch House' roil with fantastickal energies

It was only a matter of time before the familiar genre of the comic book movie migrated to the stage. But don’t expect any muscle-bound jocks in colorful spandex roaming the aisles of A.C.T.’s intimate mid-Market venue, The Costume Shop. Not only is the titular “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” of their current production not a superhero with mutant powers bestowed upon her by a quirk of DNA or gamma rays, but in a twist, the comic book involved actually originates from the play -- not the other way around.

The play centers mainly around a youthfully shiftless, struggling painter Tallman (Joshua Roberts), whose dire straits and afternoon drinking habits lead to a chance encounter with one of cinematic fiction’s most enduring tropes, the Nathan Rabin-dubbed MPDG Lilly (Lyndsy Kail), a woman who “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventure.”

It’s a problematic relationship model on so many levels it’s hard to even know where to begin. Lilly is conveniently mute so she never has to share her feelings, or even her last name, but somehow, within an afternoon of their meeting, she’s moved into Tallman’s hovel, from which he is about to be evicted (by his ex-girlfriend’s new lover, smarmy real estate agent Rick [Lucas Hatton] no less). She never expresses a desire for anything beyond colorful scarves and starburst candy, and Tallman, in the middle of a painting frenzy, is so self-absorbed he can’t bring himself to question his “luck.” Even his sympathetic-to-a-point best friend Porter (Michael Barrett Austin) becomes disgusted with his lack of awareness. “Liking the way someone makes you feel is not the same as liking an actual person,” he observes astutely before abandoning Tallman to his fate.

The comic book, or rather, graphic novel, is represented as a series of projections which serve as backdrop and counterpoint to the live action unfolding onstage. Drawn by local actor and graphic artist Rob Dario, the panels form a silent but urgent backdrop to the narrative, adding visual heft to the bare bones set of stools, a humble futon, and primer-splotched countertop/bar. Or rather, presumably they do. Due to technical glitches, many of the images refused to project when cued, and the promise of a wholly symbiotic graphic-novel-play was under-realized the evening I went to see it.

But the images that did make it through, deceptively simple black-and-white line drawings somewhat reminiscent of the art of Brian Wood, gave Tallman’s inner struggles an external medium to be expressed through as his mysterious affair unfolded. Doubtlessly constrained by budget and time considerations, what the company failed to produce (but should have) was a companion comic as takeaway. I could have filed it next to my oft-referenced Transmetropolitan collection.

Meanwhile, up the road a ways at The Garage, Morgan Bassichis’ “The Witch House” involves a whole panoply of characters who are not quite pixies, but certainly manic. A pair of pre-adolescent boys dabbling in witchcraft set off for Salem in order to cast a spell for a third youth, and all three find themselves possessed by the restless spirits of witch trial accusers Abigail Williams, Ann Putnam Jr., and Mary Walcott.

A fairly oblique examination of gender roles and the justice system, what “The Witch House,” does offer is a wealth of intriguing visuals mainly provided by the largish cast of “bees” (also shades of the accused) who writhe and dance across the stage, simulating the emotional storms brewing thereon. Also, the company has designed a series of original “playing cards” to give away, with art by Lis Goldschmidt and a poetic speech penned by Bassichis, a savvy promotional tactic that even PlayGround (who coproduced “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”) can learn from.

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