Back in 1940 when Russell Stamm’s The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil first appeared on the pages of the Chicago Times as America’s first female superhero comic strip, the world was a very different place. But was it really that different after all? Barbara Lhota’s world premiere The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil takes us back to a time when women were struggling for equal status in the workplace, Russian agents and American crooks were scheming together to undermine our society, and the power of honest news reporting could change minds—and lives. And it wraps all all this up in a cloak of rip-roaring, gut-busting, thought-provoking adventure.
Babes With Blades’ Comic Strip Adaptation Shines on Stage
From the mosaic of screens laid out like the panels of a comic book on the upstage wall, to the onomatopoeic POWs and BAMs during the fight scenes, to the words THE END shining across at the final curtain, The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil joyfully leans into its roots in the funny papers. Chloe Baldwin serves as the backbone of the show in the title role, a plucky young woman determined to help people as a newspaper reporter. The exact nature of Scarlet’s power and how she ends up using it are a mix of clever action by Libby Beyreis, assisted by Chloe Baldwin; lighting by Meghan Erxleben; set design by Milo Bue; and direction by Leigh Barrett. Ironically, one would be best to see her “invisibility” to fully appreciate it!
Superficially, many of the characters may seem to fit into stock roles: the experienced reporter showing the newbie the ropes; the cigar-chomping editor-in-chief; the precocious kid; the cackling spy and bumbling lackey. Two things make these characters stand out from the crowded marketplace of costumed adventurers ubiquitous on screens big and small, however. For one, all of the actors give their roles real depth, whether it’s just a glimpse of the human being behind the archetype or a full exploration of their identity.
For another (and this is no small matter) most of the characters, and all of the main parts, are female. Certainly, some things have changed since Scarlet O’Neil debuted in the 1940s. Yet even in the present day, leading (and supporting) roles throughout theater, television, and film are written disproportionately for men. This is especially true in the superhero genre. It is refreshing, therefore, to see Babes With Blades present a story where the hero AND her sidekick AND their friends AND the villain AND her hired gun are interesting, compelling women.
Sharp Acting and Creative Design Complement Each Other
It is tempting to say Lisa Herceg steals the show in a dual turn as brilliant, dry-witted scientist-cum-movie star Hedy Labarr and foul-mouthed, wisecracking newspaper switchboard operator Marcie. It is tempting to say she then has it stolen from her by Ashley Fox’s Judy Butafuco, the malaprop-prone mafiosa with a heart of gold enlisted by Evanna Keil (a positively nefarious Elizabeth MacDougald) to help purloin documents describing a top secret formula. It is furthermore tempting to say the show is yet again stolen by Margaux Fournier in her professional debut as Sarah Blue, the eloquent wunderkind who becomes both Scarlet’s genius tech support and her surrogate little sister.
Indeed, each performer has multiple moments that light up the stage and capture the audience’s imagination. As the show goes on, though, one realizes that Babes With Blades has assembled a cast of such talent and chemistry (pardon the pun) that individual standout scenes reinforce the solid acting and storytelling throughout.
The icing on the cake is the myriad of details that draw one into the play. As the period slang and Kimberly G. Morris’ costumes place bring the audience firmly into the 1940s Chicago setting, projections of thought bubbles, fight sounds that recall the 60s Batman TV show, and the occasional MEANWHILE courtesy of G. “Max” Maxin IV add up to one of the greatest feelings of verisimilitude in a comic adaptation since Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. From “killer diller” violence choreography to an amusing puppetry cameo, the design elements come together in a way that enhances and highlights the acting.
Theater-goers in the mood for a production that’s goofy yet smart, incisive yet fun, will do themselves a favor by coming out to this latest effort from Babes With Blades.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago.
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All photos by Joe Mazza.
About the Author:
Harold Jaffe is a poet, playwright, amateur trapeze artist, freelance greeting card designer, and now, unexpectedly, a theater critic. He earned a BS in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Olin College and since returning to Chicago has worked extensively with Cave Painting Theater Company and the late great Oracle Productions. His chapbook Perpetual Emotion Machine is now available at Women & Children First, and his reviews of shows around town are available right here.