The notion of retconning a century-plus of separate-but-parallel fictions into a unified supernarrative isn’t new. But it’s enjoying an extremely public renaissance just now, with film studios and television networks scrambling to build interwoven fictive universes where previously only publishers dared tread.
Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics did this with Victorian heroes Alan Quartermain, Mina Harker, Captain Nemo, and a handful of others 14 years ago. More recently, John Logan’s Showtime series Penny Dreadful spun a story weaving together the fates of Victor Frankenstein and his creations with Dorian Gray and the Wolfman, among others.
Of course, those creators were working, at least in part, with characters who’d passed into the public domain. For its latest fisticuffs-ical, The Secret History of the Unknown World, Flying V—the energetic Montgomery County theater troupe formed in 2011 by sci-fi/comics/wrestling enthusiasts Jason Schlafstein and Jonathan Ezra Rubin—blows that premise wide open, gorging itself on a banquet of pop-culture (and a soupçon of history) that would choke the planet-eater Galactus. Their new anthology of nerdbait is their most sprawling yet, opening with a female Sherlock Holmes and John Watson trailing one Dr. Henry Jekyll to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago after failing to solve the Whitechapel murders in London. And it never gets any less lower-case-c catholic about its sources, leaping (and kicking, and tumbling) ahead in rough increments of a decade or two, right up into the present.
Nikola Tesla is a supervillian. A tuxedo-wearing MI6 field agent named Moore—Remington Moore—falls in with a whip-cracking, tomb-raiding archeologist named Colorado Jones. There are Martians and Men of Steel and precocious girl detectives and lonely theater-camp attendees. There’re geriatric incarnations of Zorro the Gay Blade and Tarzan the Ape-Man and The Lone Ranger the, um, lone ranger, all limping out of retirement for One Last Mission. There’s The Doctor and Deadpool and and a team of of crime-fighting adolescent ladies who’re still mulling over what to call themselves. (I liked The Slice Girls among their proffered candidates, but the others were not without merit.)
The production also boasts a driving original musical score by Navid Azeez and Michael Winch and an elaborate series of era-establishing interstitial projections by Paul Deziel. Production value-wise, this is a quantum leap in ambition for the Flying Vees. Given the number of set and costume changes to which the 10-person ensemble is subject, to gripe about a handful of sluggish transitions would be churlish indeed. If the 2-and-a-half-hour run time (intermission included) taxes one’s suspension of impatience just a little, well, you can’t fault this crew for wanting to give you your money’s worth and then some.
This surfeit of enthusiasm is the defining trait of the performances, too. Tim German, Michelle Polera, and Em Whitworth all warrant special notice, each radiating more than enough outsize-and-yet-character-specific athleticism (and volume, just, you know, speechwise) to avoid being steamrollered by the production elements. Their ability to establish characterization through expression, posture, and gait is the show’s most special effect. Not every member of the ensemble shares this gift for remaking their entire body with each wardrobe change, but they’re all hardy specimens, and fun to watch. (James Finley, who plays the show’s copyright law-respecting analog of Superman, earns a laugh just from the angle at which he cocks his Kryptonian chin.)
Two of the actors who performed on press night, Ryan Tumulty and Noah Schaefer, were drafted on a few hours’ notice when a foot injury suffered by Jason Tamborini at a preview proved more serious than initially believed. (Unfortunately, Tomborini is not expected to recover in time to rejoin the cast.) That Schaefer is credited as the show’s Assistant Director presumably means he had a head start learning his lines and moves, but still: Respect.
As is often the case on stage, the lowest-tech illusions are ones that deliver highest impact: I particularly enjoyed a showdown between Captain Nemo’s vessel, the Nautilus, and a pair of sea beasts, rendered in models and puppets designed by Andrea “Dre” Moore. That battle scene is one of which any eight-year-old who’d dumped the contents of his toybox onto his bedroom floor and permitted his Pokémon and his Avengers and his Star Wars figures to fraternize without shame or fear of copyright lawyers would be proud. All this ebullient, inspired juvenilia is best enjoyed with an adult beverage, and they are available for purchase.
At The Bethesda Writer’s Center to July 2. 4508 Walsh St., Bethesda. $20-$40. flyingvtheatre.com.