Dallas — Outcry Theatre’s production of Adam Szymkowicz’s Hearts like Fists is fun, but that could go without saying. After all, the script is a campy comic book romp with kick-butt female crime fighters. What more do you need?
Well, they’ve added the ingredient that makes the spoof spiffier: heart.
The opening moments with creepy sound effects, video projection and dramatic down light over Dr. X (Cary Bazan) as he passionately warns the audience of his impending wrath might make it seem like they’re trying a bit hard, but that’s okay. They are.
Director Becca Johnson-Spinos is deliberate in driving the show in this direction. Outcry Theatre isn’t taking the road less travelled, they’re making their own entirely. Not so much serio-comic as comically serious, the earnest approach pays off as real issues of risk, regret and revenge in the game of love are examined sensitively from both the male and, yes, female perspective.
The tone takes the audience a minute to find. It must be hard for Mr. Bazan to resist the urge to send up his evil mastermind at the outset. Consequently, the confusion remains even as the crime fighters appear. Rhonda Durant, Elizabeth Evans and Jād Saxton take the stage in Amanda J. Capshaw’s excellent superhero outfits with such gusto that this could still be a serious comic book flight of fancy. It’s Saxton who finally lands the first unquestioned laugh. From then on, there’s a license to find them fully funny as long as we find them fully female.
See, fighting bad guys means giving up good guys. By day they’re nurses with crushes like any other girl (for instance, on the surgeon, Peter (Ryan Maffei), who is inventing his own artificial heart). By night, they try to protect the city from Dr. X, who is stopping the hearts of couples sleeping in bed together.
Only one person has survived his attack, Lisa (Marla Jo Kelly) and that makes her an attractive recruit for the crime fighters, as well as, being, well, attractive, in general. She’s so attractive, in fact, that construction sites pay her to stay away for fear of the workers falling for her. Literally.
The trouble comes to a head when Lisa has to chose between crime fighting and a relationship with the one guy who has been able to resist her: Peter. Meanwhile, he has to decide whether he can risk his fragile heart on her. That’s partly the reason he’s been making an artificial one.
If it isn’t obvious by now, “heart” is a big player here. It’s up to the actors to keep the metaphor from getting hokey. Kelly does an admirable job keeping an impossibly earnest expression even while spouting lines about how she’s used to causing traffic accidents with her looks. Durant’s crime fighter has a real thing for the commissioner. Saxton’s has it bad for the bad guy, Dr. X, but his passion and subsequent mania is for a love he lost. It’s Hannah Brake as the nurse pining for Peter who almost steals the whole show, though. As intense as Bazan can be, Brake is funny.
Though everyone in the production seems to be having a real ball, the precision with which they achieve their serio-silliness is really the thing to watch. Director Johnson-Spinos choreographs a fantastically unconventional surgery scene. Durant’s fight choreography is some of the most effective on Dallas stages of late, comic or not. Mr. Johnson-Spinos’ timed projections add an extra dimension to the Margo Jones playing space. There’s a lot of work on display here, but it doesn’t come across as heavy or labored.
As satisfying as the show is, it’s as much fun to watch an audience expecting a light comedy grow invested in the goings on. By focusing on the humanity of these heightened characters, Outcry succeeds in heightening the humanity of its audience.
Super heroes, indeed.