Show: “The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil”
Company: Babes With Blades Theatre Company
Venue: The Factory Theater (1623 W Howard St)
Scarlet O’Neill is not like other young ladies living in 1940s Chicago. She has no plans to settle down as she pursues a career in investigative journalism, she lost her parents at an early age and has looked after herself for years, and she can turn invisible at will. If you think this sounds like the perfect mix of elements to make a superheroine, you would be right. Scarlet starred in her own comic strip from 1940 to 1956 in the Chicago Times, created and drawn by artist Russell Stamm, and now her adventures are being featured onstage by Babes With Blades Theatre Company, in the entertaining “The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil,” named for the strip.
After receiving the power of invisibility during a freak lab accident, the teenaged Scarlet (Chloe Baldwin) promises her father (Chris Cinereski, in one of many roles) that she will hide her newfound ability from the world. Years later, as she starts a new reporting job at a major metropolitan newspaper, she is confronted with an odd mystery; without explanation, women everywhere are jumping in Lake Michigan fully clothed. Scarlet teams up with underappreciated colleague Jean Sharp (Aneisa Hicks) to hunt for the scoop. Meanwhile, her scientist father’s old labmates, including movie star Hedy Labarr (Lisa Herceg), are being targeted by his former assistant, Evanna Keil (Elizabeth MacDougald), now an operative for the KGB, an organization heavily invested in mind control. She is joined by mafia leader Judy Butafuco (Ashley Fox), a surprisingly kind and inept don. In order to discover the connection between the drenched women, and protect her friends, Scarlet must break her vow, and use her invisibility to save the day.
This is the first commissioned work Babes With Blades has produced in its twenty year-plus history, and playwright Barbara Lhota does right by Stamm’s work. She has a great ear for the colorful dialogue of the funny pages, sprinkling each character’s speech with catchy word play, goofy slang, and in the case of Butafuco, malapropisms aplenty. The text crackles with energy, as each new piece of information falls into place for our heroine, and each character type is cleverly set up within the world of the play. There is one major surprise to be had for the audience late in the play, and it delights, in a classic adventure strip scene where every major character converges onstage, and justice is done.
Director Leigh Barrett sets a spritely tone early on, encouraging her actors to embrace the fast-paced dialogue and adventure tropes of a comic strip. Her work with Baldwin, Hicks, and Fox is especially fine, as each actress generates screwball energy while still committing to the truth at the heart of her character. Baldwin captures the earnestness of Scarlet, even in moments when thought bubbles appear at the back of the stage narrating her thoughts. Fox is hilariously dim-witted, but her scruples make her mafia operative less of a joke and more someone you want to root for; Hicks has the most down-to-earth take on her struggling journalist, which gives her final stand in her editor’s office a dramatic weight that enchants and engages. Meanwhile, the violence design, executed by Libby Beyreis, has all the flash and substance of the usual Babes With Blades fight choreography.
Truth be told, I am a die-hard comic book nerd. There is likely no friendlier reviewer to have witnessed this production, but it is equally true that the show nails the look and feel of comic books in its clever design elements. Special mention should go to projection designer G. “Max” Maxin IV; he not only provides Scarlet with thought bubbles that pop up on the back wall, he also delineates every space, from the newspaper office to Hedy Labarr’s hotel suite, giving each background a cartoonist’s look that feels appropriate for the material. Scenic designer Milo Blue breaks the back of the set into individual comic panels, utilized well in moments when Scarlet turns invisible and her shadow disappears from the back wall. Lighting designer Meghan Erxleben splashes the stage with blues and reds during fight scenes, and sound designer Sarah Espinoza uses 1940s standards and noirish music to set the right mood. Perhaps most importantly, costume designer Kimberly G. Morris cleverly transform Scarlet from solid to invisible by stringing eerie blue lights along the piping of her clothing.
Comics and theatre are not that far apart in terms of what they ask from the reader and the audience. Theatre artists build the story in the audience’s mind, as well as onstage, so one is always guessing how a feat will be accomplished, or what will happen next. Comics ask you to fill in gaps its storytelling, as your eye flits from one panel to another, and creates movement invisibly across the page. In one panel, Scarlet might be winding up her fist, and in the next, pummeling a thug. The reader must provide the missing link between those moments. If I had one wish for this Babes With Blades production, it would be that the scenic transitions flowed a bit more smoothly and sharply, as if the audience were the readers in question, and simply turning a page.
Comics are also big and bold and ridiculous, and employ devices that no one would ever think to take seriously. Theatre can be the same way. So much of the theatricality in this play depends on characters beating themselves up (while actually being pummeled by a transparent Scarlet, who’s not even onstage at times), and that was delightful for the audience on the evening I attended. But I couldn’t help wondering whether there was a missing opportunity to make the invisibility happen in the audience’s mind more often, or in more ridiculous ways. A minor quibble overall, but I would have loved to see invisibility not just performed by actors, or signaled by clothing, but integrated in a spectacular way during the last battle for Scarlet’s friends and family. It felt like the finale’s action sequence lost some heft without including an explosive theatrical moment.
Still, “The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil” is a romp through Chicago comics history that is sure to leave you with a smile on your face. Whether you enjoy fast-talking newspaper gals, villanous hijinks, or straight-forward sincerity, you will find something to love in this production. Babes With Blades introduces the world to Scarlet anew, and the world is a brighter place for her superheroic presence.
TEN WORD SUMMARY: An adventure story with laughs and twists and great fights.
RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”