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Thursday, July 18, 6:15 p.m.
Saturday, July 20, 11 p.m.
Tuesday, July 23, 10:45 p.m.
Thursday, July 25, 6 p.m.
Friday, July 26, Midnight
Saturday, July 27, 4 p.m.
They say: “Evil Professor Tantamount has threatened the Earth. It’s up to John Blade, Super Spy to save the world… again. Will he stop the plot, kill the henchmen, bang the girl – or will this be an adventure unlike any other?”
The trope of the hypersexed assassin is itself so fucked-out that Sean Connery, rug-covered-barrel-chested grandaddy of cinema spies, had already tired of it by 1967, announcing in advance that his fifth screen mission as Agent 007, in You Only Live Twice, would be his last. And for its thudding first five minutes or so, The Continuing Adventures of John Blade, Super Spy, sure seems like a long shot to find any angle from which to send up James Bond and his offspring that the Bond pictures weren’t already hitting themselves, half a century ago.
But the espionage game demands patience. Things perk up considerably with the arrival of the title sequence, a live-not-video homage to those great, Maurice Binder-designed opening credits, complete with with a trio of gyrating nymphets and a breathy torch song celebrating Blade’s thoughtfulness and sensitivity astonishing lethality and stamina. Funny stuff, but still familiar.
Once that’s done, though, Kyle Encinas‘ script quickly zags to a much weirder, more rewarding place. A sort of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead of cloak-and-dagger action films, John Blade takes an interest in what are usually the minor characters in this sort of story—-specifically, the anonymous henchmen who rarely rate a line, showing up just long enough to get garroted, plugged, neck-snapped, or knocked over a railing into the shark tank.
That would seem to be the grim destiny that awaits Jeff (an appealingly oafish Christian Sullivan), a sweet-natured but somewhat dim guy with a resume full of hourly jobs. On his first day as a security guard at the mysterious Tantamount Industries, he accidentally distinguishes himself, earning the personal attention of Professor Tantamount, and the even more personal attention of Tantamount’s vampy assistant, Mallory Shear. Actually, that’s the almost-saucy-enough real name of the actor. Her character is named Mimi Sweetbread. Mallory Shear gives a convincing performance as Mimi Sweetbread.
The Blofeld-domed Carl Brandt Long plays Professor Tantamount with a good-old-boy drawl that occasionally succumbs, along with his left arm, to a Strangelovian tic. (Dr. Strangelove came out the same year as Goldfinger, so fair enough.) He has to extend the antenna on his two-way radio wristwatch every time he calls for one of his minions, a delightfully archaic detail.
John Blade is the debut production from Live Action Theatre, a company founded by a trio of stage combat professionals—-Encinas, the playwright; director Chris Niebling; and production manager Amie Root. They want to showcase “such a high level of proficiency in the art of staged violence that it serves to enhance and expand the narrative.” This isn’t any narrower a brief than devoting your company to, say, puppetry or Commedia D’ell Arte or even, hell, musical theater, but I’ll admit I expected this thing to distinguish itself in battle only. No so: The jokes—-so many jokes—-pack even more of a punch than the, uh, kicks.
That said: Fights! We got ‘em! Almost everyone in the 10-member cast gets a chance (or several chances) to show off their martial arts proficiency in an escalating series of melees: hand-to-hand, blade-to-blade, swordplay, gunplay, foreplay, afterplay. (The structural similarity between action films and musicals has never been more apparent.) Most of these exchanges are performed with a thrilling swiftness and conviction. A sleight-of-hand gag by which Blade (Craig Lawrence) appears to fell two ninjas by catching and then throwing back a dart one of them has just fired at him was so perfectly executed it earned an spontaneous ovation, as did the big eight-against-two rumble with which the show climaxes.
But it isn’t just fist-icuffs. This is, in fact, the heat-packingest stage show I’ve ever seen. They got a deal, apparently: The program includes a full-page ad for a theatrical weapons firm owned by Robb Hunter, who has a fun role as Professor Tantamount’s key enforcer. He brought the guns to the knife-fight: Hunter and Sullivan get down in a fast crossing of short blades that I swear must have cost both men a few eyebrows, if not an eye.
It’s all impressive, but Encinas’s script is the real lethal weapon, one that manages to disarm us again and again with the element of surprise. Consider the overheard conversation with which we’re introduced to Jeff and his equally unambitious but more observant work-buddy Troy (Lex Davis): “It’s not the books,” one of them opines. “I don’t like Harry Potter the person.” It’s such a modest, unassuming little joke that you don’t realize until later Encinas was practicing the deadly (often very deadly) art of foreshadowing.
He kills us with kindness, and then he kills us with swords and guns.
Choose to accept this mission if: You have seen and enjoyed even one film in the James Bond, Mission: Impossible, Jason Bourne, or Austin Powers film franchises. Or you miss watching (or hate-watching) the TV show 24. Or especially if you consider Sterling Archer the very model of a modern, major, tactical turtleneck-wearing covert operative.
Abort mission if: You prefer chilly, existential John Le Carre/The Americans-style tradecraft.