100 Ways to Tell a Story: Sacred Fools’ “Astro Boy”

Comics haven’t been around long — maybe 200 years (unless you count Ancient Egypt’s hieroglyphics), while theatre reaches back into prehistoric times.

But that doesn’t mean we playmakers can’t learn from our much younger siblings.  Take Sacred Fools’ current creation, Astro Boy and the God of Comics.

Jaime Puckett, Anthony Li, Zach Brown, Heather Mills (photo: Jessica Sherman)

Jaime Puckett, Anthony Li, Zach Brown, Heather Mills (photo: Jessica Sherman)

Natsu Onoda Power’s play introduces us to Osamu Tezuka, the first great genius of Japanese comic art, or manga.  What better way than through his most famous character, and in his storytelling style?

Astro Boy is the Mickey Mouse of Japanese cartoons. His stories are told in a sequence of dramatic panels, with readers often having to imagine the moments between.  The panels often burst with energy,  and the story moves through them speedily.

So Onoda Power gives us a dozen scenes, some many years apart … and just for the fun of it, presents them in reverse order, ending with Tezuka’s birth.  She also puts most of the actors to work as illustrators, swiftly drawing images (usually on a giant paper tablet that doubles as a cyclorama) as each scene unfolds.  And — perhaps reflecting the fact that Astro Boy, like Mickey, is a superstar in movies — filmed projections are an ever-present part of the mix.

All of this sets a massive challenge before the directing-design team.  Jaime Robledo and stage manager Heatherlynn Gonzalez display a sure hand at herding kittens, keeping the story’s flow smooth, clear and real.  (Robledo also contributes a lively, at times moving, sound design.)  Aviva Pressman — with the unusual title, “Live Art Director” — turns actors into cartoonists, while Jim Pierce and Danielle Heilmuller give us Tezuka’s style in a panoply of projections.

The actors, for their part, never let a line — spoken or drawn — get lost.  Heather Schmidt uses a piping voice and patterned movement to embody a thoroughly engaging Astro Boy, and West Liang diffidently delivers the gentle, obsessed Tezuka.  When not busy making miracles with their pens, the ensemble creates everyone else, from Tezuka’s assistants and publishers to his wife (a fine turn by Megumi Kabe).  Marz Richards narrates several scenes with a nice blend of salesman brass and a slight, hidden  embarrassment.

In a fast-moving “comic” tale, I do not expect to brought to tears — but I was, twice.  The first time was for a mechanical puppet.  The second was for a scene from Tezuka’s youth:  When he was a teen, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were obliterated by atomic bombs.  Astro Boy (whose name in Japan is “Mighty Atom”) arose from the ashes —  a robot who uses his superpowers only for the good of humanity.

Astro Boy and the God of Comics tells an interesting, moving story with amazing energy and cleverness.  But more than this, it’s a remarkable achievement — a feast of the senses that greatly widens our awareness of how theatre can tell stories.  Just as (my seatmate pointed out) comics added a visual dimension to literature.

Astro Boy isn’t just a festival for fans, though manga lovers will surely be entranced.  It’s an invaluable experience for anyone who loves — or makes — theatre.
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Astro Boy and the God of Comics, by Natsu Onoda Power, directed by Jaime Robledo.
Presented by the Sacred Fools Theatre Company, at their theatre, 660 N. Heliotrope.

August 7th and 8th, at 8:00 pm.

Tickets:  <www.SacredFools.org> or (310) 281-8337.