There is a weapon powerful enough to destroy the world, and evil powers are determined to steal it. “The world will soon be ours,” says a cackling, raspy voice, followed by evil laughter. Will our hero be able stop the bad guys in time and save the world from destruction?
To anyone who has ever read a comic book this plot should sound familiar, but superheroes and dangerous weapons are hardly the fixtures of a typical theatergoing experience. “The Five Fists of Science,” at the Yale Cabaret, is a playful adaptation by Alex Knox DRA ’09 and Rebecca Phillips DRA ’09 from a graphic novel of the same title. It is about the rivalry between Serbian scientist Nikola Tesla (Knox), the inventor of the alternating current, and Thomas Edison (Christopher Grant DRA ’08), inventor of the direct current. Tesla has invented a weapon so powerful that no one will dare use it. He hopes that this will mean permanent peace for humanity. The bad guys (Edison and J.P. Morgan), however, have different plans, as the bad guys always do, and these plans certainly do not involve world peace.
Adapting a novel to a play is one thing; adapting a graphic novel is entirely different. While a smooth and realistic flow of events may be commendable in a novel adaptation, director Rebecca Phillips DRA ’09 has gone for the opposite effect in retaining the comic book feel. Actions in the play are short, harsh and exaggerated. Transitions from one scene to another are preceded by short pauses where all characters freeze as if to reproduce the drawing of the scene. In some cases, this can mean that all characters stare at a fixed point in the horizon in an unnatural representation of hope and expectation.
The use of cardboard props (flowers, a telephone, journalists) emphasizes the sense that the events are taking place in two dimensions. Even the actors appear to be 2-D caricatures of themselves, with gestures that are mostly blunt and planar, as if the actor has swallowed a rod. That is not to say the acting is clumsy. To the contrary, the actors do a wonderful job of creating intensely defined comic book expressions, simple yet intensified emotions and funny accents — a Southern drawl for Tesla’s friend Mark Twain (Barret O’Brien DRA ’09) and a German accent for Baroness Bertha (Brooke Parks DRA ’08).
“Five Fists” is fast-paced and condensed — the grand fight between good and evil involving monsters and robots and the super-weapon (all represented artfully and creatively through actors wearing costumes of black spandex and masks) takes place in about 50 minutes. But it is irrelevant to say the story is not well developed; it is not supposed to be. A loyal comic book reader does not look for complexity or depth in the plot.
The problem the play has to face is whether it’s possible for the experience of watching a graphic novel onstage to be attractive to audiences who are not comic book geeks. Some issues in the play are relevant to all audiences: The idea of a potentially destructive super-weapon can hardly fail to evoke weapons of mass destruction. The effect of the media and powerful companies in manipulating scientific research is also relevant. The play might take place in 1899, but if he had lived today, Tesla would probably face similar questions. Yet the play’s power does not lie in its ability to discuss such contemporary issues; it merely glazes the surface by acknowledging their existence.
The audience has to be willing to share the thrill, the innocent simplicity and visual feast of a 2-D experience in order to appreciate the brilliance of “The Five Fists of Science.” Leave behind your extra dimension and then enter this fantastic realm where it is possible to rid the world of all evil — in under an hour.