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The end is the beginning is the end in Astro Boy and the God of Comics, Natsu Onoda Power’s brisk, vibrant, surprisingly moving sci-fi spectacle-cum-artist biography. Superficially an adaptation of the Atomic Age manga about an empathetic flying Pinocchio built by a scientist to replace his dead son, the show blasts off when its helmet-haired hero does, on a self-sacrificing mission to save us puny humans from a lethal spike in solar radiation.
Does he succeed, or do we all cook? Given the optimistic sensibility of cartoonist Osamu Tezuka, the show’s other title character, our odds seem good, but—SPOILER—we never find out. After quickly establishing the planetary threat via some funny newscasts from a stentorian Joe Brack, the show’s 10 “episodes” glide backward in time. As the piece morphs from the origin story of Astro Boy—powered, as superhero origins must be, by the twin booster rockets of tragedy and altruism—into a loving portrait of the ‘bot-boy’s real-life creator, it steadily gathers emotional resonance to match its technical brilliance and deft ensemble work. It’s a stunner.
We’re told the solar scare has swelled wait lists for offworld retirement colonies. The moon and Mars would seem to be at least as vulnerable to any sun-related problem as Earth, as one talking head points out—maybe people want to go because President Gingrich has granted them statehood. It’s all played for laughs, but to Tezuka, the prospect of a consuming apocalyptic inferno was no joke. Born in 1928, he was a young man when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were vaporized in 1945. He released his first manga two years later, when he was a medical student. His comics were popular enough that he never practiced medicine, though he kept medical-resident work hours, often sleeping in his studio. Although accessible to kids, his most famous creation pondered the same profound question that has driven so much “adult” sci-fi: If we endow our machine servants with the ability to think and feel, what obligations do we owe them?
Power, a Georgetown University theater professor who expanded her thesis about Tezuka’s seminal manga and anime into a 2009 book, here expertly wields a staggering array of high- and low-tech storytelling tools—video and laser projection, puppetry, choreography, and live cartooning—to weave a kinetic but never assaultive metatextual tapestry.
Save for Astro and Tezuka (Karen O’Connell and Clark Young, respectively), the cast wears zippered flight suits with mission patches featuring the show’s slick logo. Those military-style uniforms could be a nod to the discipline with which they collaborate, particularly when several of them team-sketch a key scene—the computer failure/traffic fatality that claimed the son of Dr. Boynton, Astro Boy’s inventor—in magic marker across a giant paper backdrop. They must be tracing faintly projected lines to all be sketching pieces of the same picture at a consistent scale and perspective, but I was unable to detect any trickery from where I was sitting. (Alex Thomas is the show’s credited cartoonist, with additional compositions from Andy Brommel.) All that matters is that this rapid act of apparent creation is breathtaking to witness, one-upping the much-discussed canvas-priming scene in Arena Stage’s ongoing production of the Mark Rothko study RED. That lumbering blowhard of a play could use a dash of the whimsy that Power brings this one, even as she makes its stakes feel so much higher.
Luciana Stecconi’s clever set design frames the stage with a giant recreation of a vintage console television; its screen is a transparent curtain that reflects Jared Mezzocchi’s judiciously used video projections while still allowing us to see the actors behind it. Sometimes they seem to manipulate the graphics by waving their hands, like Tom Cruise in Minority Report. This show, more than most, relies on perfect synchronicity between the actors and the technicians. That it all looks so easy is a testament to the prodigious craft involved.
When Tezuka adapted Astro Boy for television in 1963, the program’s backers insisted it be made on the cheap. Thus animators kept a “bank” from which they could sample pieces of old footage, fashioning new episodes from as few new drawings as possible—a budgetary compromise that evolved into an aesthetic. The ability to rewatch old episodes on demand was a generation off, but attentive viewers still picked up on the recycling.
Astro Boy the play feels lavish by comparison. Even when its visual effects are no more sophisticated than a projected skyscape against which a stick-mounted maquette can be made to soar, it transports us completely into the world of an artist who imagined that science might bring humankind not just a horrifying new scourge, but perhaps a benevolent protector, too. Early in the show, as we watch a team of technicians assemble Astro Boy in a lab that looks like giant microchip, scrolling text briefs us on the abilities that set him apart from other machines. He’s got an IQ of 300, but he can cry, too.
Like Astro Boy, Astro Boy and the God of Comics is an advanced creation with a human soul. No expenditure of imagination has been spared.