Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Spider-Man: Nobody Knows What You Are

Despite the fact that Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark does not officially open until February 7—the exact date being a moveable feast that should be written lightly in pencil on the calendar—the schadenfreude crowd has been circling Broadway’s Foxwoods Theater like a flock of ravenous vultures. The New York Post’s Michael Riedel has been especially vitriolic, predicting the show will be an “epic flop.”

Is it any good? Can it be saved? What about all of those delays, canceled performances, technical glitches, and injuries to cast members? And what on earth has Julie Taymor, the show’s co-writer and its director, done with the $65 million said to be the cost of mounting Spider-Man?

To judge by her interviews, Ms. Taymor appears to be quite unperturbed by the gathering of those eager to feast on the carcass of her show. She could be faking it and actually may be quite concerned about the possibility of Spider-Man’s sinking into oblivion under the weight of its own hubris. Or she may simply believe that she and her creative team will be able to make sufficient adjustments to the show so that when it finally has its formal opening, it will be quite ready for prime time.

But I would like to propose another explanation for Ms. Taymor’s sanguinity. Perhaps, as far as Spider-Man is concerned, success on Broadway is largely irrelevant.

I recently attended a performance. Here is my take on things.

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark was never conceived as a Broadway show in the first place—at least not in the traditional sense of offering a compelling story, plot-related songs, and theatrical acting. It was always planned as an “arena show,” to be performed in the U. S. and abroad before audiences numbering in the thousands, a majority of whom would be sitting a great distance from the stage.

The script does a minimal job of retelling the familiar Spider-Man story and does so only in Act I. The dialog is perfunctory. The performances are “large” and loudly amplified so as to strip the sketchy characters of any humanity or intimacy. In short, Spider-Man has been designed from the outset with the purpose of showcasing the visual effects and the accompanying score by rock superstars Bono and The Edge of the band U2.

Much of the criticism to date has been aimed at Taymor's chutzpah for failing to work on Spider-Man out of town, so that it might arrive on Broadway in fairly good shape. But here’s a thought: what if Broadway itself is the tryout town, where Spider-Man is being readied as an event to take on the road? Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if were announced that U2 will be performing the music live against the backdrop of Spider-Man as it travels the globe.

If you think of Spider-Man in these terms, the cursory stab at story-telling that eats up the overly long Act I is almost irrelevant, and the nightmarish imagery of Act II—which has been attacked by many as a confusing and disconnected mess—offers up a visual and auditory extravaganza that works just fine. Think of Spider-Man as being divided not into two acts, but two variations on a theme. Act I takes its inspiration from the well-known story of Peter Parker, the teenager who is transformed by the bite of a genetically altered spider; Act II is like a jazz riff on the theme of Spider-Man. If you need to find a theatrical logic to Act II, think of it is a fever dream brought on by the bite from a toxic arachnid.

The sets, by George Tsypin, are quite good, by the way. Act I has the appearance of a comic book; Act II, with its hallucinogenic quality, has the look of a graphic novel. There are also very compelling digital projections by Kyle Cooper, colorful costumes by Eiko Ishioka, and lots of aerial maneuvers, designed by Scott Rogers. All of these will serve nicely as Spider-Man hits the road.

As for being an “epic flop,” I don’t think it matters much what happens to the initial $65 million outlay. Spider-Man has a real shot at finding its financial success around the country and around the world—and the heck with Broadway.

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