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Unmasked Man

photo by theater-words

1.

I met a friendly usher last week at Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark.

“Having fun?” Andy inquired as I stretched my Intermission Legs.

“Sure am!”

Several short exchanges later, Andy brandished the ultimate Spidey coup de théâtre: the words “RISE ABOVE” freshly tattooed along the inside of his forearm. Why the lyric, I asked? Turns out he’d been inspired by the resilience of ensemble member Chris Tierney. So much for Tierney’s much publicized near-death stage tumble–Andy told me Tierney planned to be back in the show by opening (March 15, i.e., The Ides of March). He had attended recent performances, and was “dancing in the aisles to show people how well he was doing.” “RISE ABOVE,” then, was a tattoo of solidarity. My usher-informant also had a “LiveStrong”-style rubber wristband that the whole company was sporting in support of theirbackbreaking cast mate. He couldn’t have been more clear: “Chris is my frikkin hero.”

photo by theater-words

“Rise Above” — one of the show’s several anthems — isn’t just a tattoo, a popish refrain, or a declaration of theme, it’s a reference to “Spider-Man’s” most exhilarating component part: flight.

You know it’s coming, you’ve read about the casualties, and the pre-show safety advisory (“DON’T TOUCH SPIDEY!”) has you all nervous, but hell — I dare anyone not to stupidly gawk when those actors crouch far upstage then pounce to the upper balcony. There is a palpable feeling of space breaking and theater transcending itself in these inspired moments. The nightly thrill of these maneuvers surely explains some of my usher’s enthusiasm.

As for the actual plot? Spidey fights shiny mutants, has an aerial make-out session, and proposes over canned pears– you know the drill. It’s mythic, if sometimes cryptic stuff. One wonders about the narrative integrity of a character’s descent “from the astral plane” via an arachnid ensemble shoe-ganza. (Zappos time!) And I’m still trying to figure out where that Nazis chorus came from. And where did it go?

But all this is really beside the point. It’s really all about the flight.

2.

It’s encouraging that “Spiderman’s” team could “rise above” the drumbeat of apocalyptic coverage and just create something with real imaginative force. Goodness knows the killer bees have been buzzing. Michael Riedel’s New York Post column continues to feature particularly vitriolic openers like, “There was a twitching on my web this week, and when I crawled out to see what I’d caught, there–all tangled up and weary from the struggle–was Julie Taymor’s “Spider-Man.” According to Jesse Green of New York Magazine, “This is a man the cast of ‘Spider-Man’ has taken to beating up in effigy, in the form of a ten-foot-tall inflatable villain otherwise called Bonesaw McGraw.” Riedel’s explanation for the public thrashing is, “I’m out to write a fun, juicy column. I cover a business—I’m not doing God’s work here. And they’re not doing God’s work either.” (Also from Green’s excellent article). The titanic budget, the injuries, the bankruptcy, that U2 concert in Australia—the hurtles were/are seemingly endless. But “sha-woman” Julie Taymor (Bono’s moniker) manages to, y’know, “rise above.”

Taymor’s vision is caught in a fascinating tension between pure illusion and theater making mechanics. Let me rephrase: the show feels unsure about how much it wants to give away, seeming to ask, “Do we hide the cables? The harnesses? Should we pretend the myriad stagehands don’t exist? And what about those Spider-Man doubles — can we count on the audience to merge them into one character?” The answers to these questions often seem incongruous. Certainly, Taymor and company want to throw the blanket over our heads and beckon us into their illusory web of mythmaking. And theatrical sleight of hand does abound, often to exciting effect. (Consider a particularly breathtaking trompe l’oeil that effectively parks the audience at the top of the Empire State Building.) But the mechanics of the event — the snapping cables, the hydraulics, the balcony stage managers — ultimately become as much a part of the drama as the illusions.

The show’s most exciting number, “Believe,” is a perfect example of the excitement “Spider-Man” engenders when it embraces these theatrical mechanics and mixes them with storytelling. Our hero runs downstage center on an increasingly fast-paced treadmill. As he nears sprint velocity, a chorus of Spidey doubles emerges behind him and stylistically “runs,” too. With every Spider-Man in view, the production’s central lie takes center stage: There are many Spider-Men; a show this size demands it. And yet, something about this moment feels more true and exciting than many of the effectively deceptive scenes.

Interestingly, Taymor seems uncomfortable with this tension. In the New York Magazine article I referenced earlier, Green gets a peek at some of the flying wizardry: “When someone shows me a jpeg of the motors, [Taymor] flaps her hands in front of the computer screen. ‘Are you trying to take away the magic?’ she cries.”

But those motors are part of the magic, a piece of what gives “Spider-Man” a dash of the mythic it aspires to. Theater on such a grand scale, theater where swinging nymphs can weave a tapestry with their gowns, where hope literally takes flight — it’s exciting!

The proof of this comes in the final aerial sequence, which becomes truly inspired by using everything about “Spider-Man” that works: flight, humanity and machinery. Until this point, Spidey has been decked out in full Spandex glory for the super-audience maneuvers. He’s been a creature, a genetic mutant you can admire but never empathize with. But when Peter Parker, the man of Spider-Man, takes flight sans mask, everything comes rushing into focus: Here’s this guy, this human, who’s always bumming out. He’s been unappreciated, but now he’s flying — not as some foreign superhero, but as a human being. Call me a sucker, but this is beautiful stuff. Yes, you think, he overcame adversity and flew! What dream is more universal? That it’s performed by an un-masked man is a great gesture of humanity and generosity.

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