Ben Katchor’s Playful Side
Attention Ben Katchor fans. After universally good reviews (including an unabashed rave by Ben Brantley in the New York Times) Ben’s musical, The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island, or The Friends of Dr. Rushower, has extended its run at NYC’s Vineyard Theatre. The show, beautifully directed by Bob McGrath, with a subtle, hypnotic score by Mark Mulcahy, manages to accomplish the seemingly improbable, turning Katchor’s determinedly mono-chromatic world of fading cities, graphic novels, and comics into not only live performance but a musical. The plotline is typically Katchoresque and defies simple description, but I’ll try anyway: Immanuel Lubang is a disaffected urban hipster obsessed with the how-to manuals of antiquated mid-century appliances. He finds in these pamphlets a kind of sublime beauty. Through a quirk of a fate (a drop of melted ice cream that falls from a roof top terrace and plops on Lubang’s jacket), he meets noted industrialist Dr. Rushower and his pretty but aloof daughter GinGin, a young women distraught by the plight of Kayrol Island, a former paradise where the natives (the slug bearers of the title) carry lead weights from the ships to the nearby factories where they’re implanted in flimsy plastic products to give them in the words of one of the show’s songs “weight and heft.”
Needless to say, like all of Ben’s work, the musical creates a singular, alternative universe. It’s not one you would normally associate with a musical, and yet the show–modest in scale, a four piece band is set up behind the stage, in full view of the audience–packs a surprising emotional punch. The cast, lead by Jody Flader (GinGin), Bobby Steggert (Immanual) and Peter Friedman (Dr. Rushower), is strong. The entire cast in fact does a fine job with the smart, subtle, sung-through Katchor libretto. And what’s more satisfying for Ben’s fans, director McGrath uses the flat, two-dimensional world of comics to great affect by projecting Katchor drawings onto moving scrims, which act as stage set and narrative device, pushing the action forward in almost cinematic fashion. By the way, Kayrol Island made its first appearance in a Ben Katchor Metropolis comic. Bravo!
Ben’s monthly contribution to Metropolis was recently named “Best Comic Outside of Comics” by ComicCritique.com. The article, a year-end survey of the best in comics, refers to Ben as “perhaps the most underrecognized and surely most advanced writer-artist in comics today.”