THE RYAN DIXON LINE: Dangling by a thread – SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK in Theory and in Practice

“The Ancient Greeks reserved a special word for the sort of arrogance that makes you forget your own humanity. That word was Hubris.” — From an introductory essay included in the Playbill of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.

Note to Julie Taymor, Bono and The Edge: When creating a $65 million dollar musical beset by more accidents than those found in the diapers of my nine-month old niece, it’s not a good idea to feature an essay in your show’s program about Hubris.

But then again, the entire production history of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark reeks of Hubris. And Hubris was at the heart of what I saw on the night of December 20th when, during a preview performance, Christopher Tierney (one of the many actors who portrays the flying Spider-Man) plummeted 30 feet into an orchestra pit, causing the performance to come to a premature end with seven minutes left.

In truth, I was there to see an accident. Not an accident that endangered the life of an actor, mind you, but a theatrical one.  I had missed the opportunity to feast upon such legendary Broadway turkeys as Dance of the Vampires, Lestat, and Carrie: The Musical. And the larger-than-life elements and Jupiter-sized egos involved with Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark seemed to ensure that the show was either going to be a unmitigated disaster or a genuine work of theatrical genius like Taymor’s The Lion King.

I know what you’re thinking now– Aside from the stage accident, how was the show?

To assist me in answering this question, I’ve enlisted my buddy Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher who knew a few things about Hubris.

As anyone who’s taken a freshman year theatre class knows, Aristotle broke down Greek Tragedy (and thus all drama that has followed) into six distinct elements: plot, character, thought or theme, diction, melody or song, and spectacle.

As a superlative example of the tragic form, Aristotle presented Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex, the plot of which is basically this:

Parents try to kill son. Son kills father. Son fucks mother. Gods Fuck son.

Now that we all know the categories that make up Aristotle’s idea of good drama, let’s see how Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark measures up…

PLOT: The first act is essentially a musical version of the the first Spider-Man movie minus James Franco — Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man, the bully Flash shows up now and again, Uncle Ben bites the dust, the Green Goblin takes to the skies, Peter romances Mary Jane and has a final confrontation with the Green Goblin while M.J. dangles in peril– and that’s actually a good thing.

As was the case in The Lion King, working with a familiar, iconic narrative allows Taymor to inject the proceedings with an impressive array of theatrical images and jaw-dropping moments of spectacle that adds flavor and freshness to the material. When Spider-Man flies into the audience for the first time, it’s nearly impossible not to feel like a kid again (and the kids in the audience the night I saw the show were cheering throughout).

My instinct tells me, however, that Taymor consented to this first act fidelity in an effort to satisfy the fans (and producers) so that she could then create a brand new branch of Spider-Man mythology in Act II, where the real antagonist is revealed not to be the Green Goblin, but Arachne, a cursed half-human, half-spider goddess.

Sadly, Archne’s ascension to chief villain is the production’s fatal flaw.

Since December 20th, Taymor, Bono, and The Edge have supposedly been retooling the second act, but I seriously doubt if mere revisions, no matter how radical, will succeed in saving it. The first act hews so closely to the well-worn mythology and —Spoiler Alert!!! –concludes with the (supposed) death of the Green Goblin, that it feels complete. And unlike Sondheim and Lapine’s Into the Woods, which featured the entire threads of classic fairy tales in the first act so that the second act could explore what happens after “happily ever after,” Act II of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark falls into the trap that has brought down countless comic book movie adaptations: too many villains.

A similar “villain problem” can be found in the wretched, but wonderfully awful Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. In that franchise’s mythology,  Megatron is the bad guy. I know this. You know this. But Michael Bay and company seemingly had forgotten this fact and so “The Fallen” was thrust upon us.

With only a single previous appearance in a Transformers comic book, this supposed leader of all Decepticons had no real emotional connection to fans. To make up for this shortcoming, in the movie The Fallen was introduced through swamps of exposition in a patently absurd Precambrian prologue dealing with an ancient tribe of Transformers called the Dynasty of the Primes who used glorified solar panels called Sun Harversters to do…something with the all-powerful All-Spark. (Who needs to read Finnegans Wake when one can just glance at Wikipedia’s plot synopsis for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.)

As is the case with The Fallen, Arachne is also introduced in a convoluted prologue that, while well-staged, would have felt a lot more necessary if the rest of the narrative had focused on her. But it does not. And so unlike the Green Goblin and Megatron who are real villains, Archane and The Fallen serve as high-calorie, low-nutrient filling for creative cooks unsure of the quality of their meal.

(Side Note: I had to keep reminding myself during the performance that this production wasn’t the launch of a franchise, but a singular theatrical event. I think audiences have grown so accustomed to the Hollywood franchise template that we now easily accept narrative threads that do not pay off under the assumption that those moments are inserted to give more meat to sequels (see Cillian Murphy in Tron: Legacy). In this show’s case, it was an attempt to stuff as much Spider-Man mythology as possible into the story, narrative momentum be damned.)

CHARACTER: Spider-Man is famous for being one of the first comic books to delve deeply into the psychology of the title character. The concept for the musical however, with its intentionally cartoonish sets and costumes, seems determined to exaggerate the “comic” element of the property. Thus characters who seemed fully human (thanks mostly due to great casting) in the well-made, but overrated movies, are re-rendered back into two dimensions.

THEME: “With great power comes great— you get the idea.

DICTION: In an effort to explain Spider-Man to those brave souls who would, for whatever god forsaken reason, venture into this musical without at least a passing knowledge of the character, a framing device has been created featuring a group of teens (subtly called the “Greek Chorus” in the program) who strut around in front of a flat plastered with a graffitied Spider-Man image, clarifying in pseudo-teen speak who our costumed hero is and what exactly is happening in the plot. (You would expect the actual narrative to accomplish these tasks, but oh well, never mind.)

The inclusion of these scenes rival the decision to create a brand new villain as the show’s most ill begotten dramaturgical misstep. While Arachne’s presence –and the entire second act– feels needlessly tagged on, at least the scenes involving Taymor’s blessed spider goddess are the most dazzlingly rendered in the production (and include all of the evening’s best songs). The opposite is true of the Greek Chorus. Their scenes are staged with such banality and heavy-handedness that they make the oeuvre of Corky St. Clair look like the work of Meyerhold.

SONG: U2 is the Applebee’s of bands. If you’re on a car trip with a group of friends, U2 is the band that blasts through the speakers because it’s the only one everyone will agree to listen to. Their songs are pleasant on the ears and unobtrusive enough to provide underscore for shopping excursions at your local mall. It’s really no different in this show; the music seems more of an afterthought than anything else. And I’ll leave it at that, basically because I can’t really remember the songs.

(In fairness, the bar for Spider-Man‘s music and songs might have been set impossibly high by my seeing Sondheim’s masterful A Little Night Music earlier in the day).

SPECTACLE: Is Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark spectacular? Yes. $65 million dollars buys you spectacle galore. Though I’m sad to report that there are no moments in the musical that ever reach the truly awe-inspiring, “How the fuck did they do that!?!” spectacle of Cirque Du Soleil’s Ka and O. Of course, Cirque built theaters specifically for those shows and each production came with budgets upwards of $200 million. (Bam! Take that, $65 million!!!)

What is most spectacular about Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark are, somewhat surprisingly, the small, incidental moments. Even during times consisting solely of characters talking to each other, you can practically see the producers handing over six-figure checks.

Take a scene that occurs early in the first act:  Peter Parker and Mary Jane are walking home from school talking about some angsty thing or another. While a director with say, only $10 million or so at their disposal, would probably stage the scene so it would take place in a single location, in this production the actors walk in place… on a giant treadmill.

But that’s not all– surrounding the treadmill is a Les Miz-like turn table that allows Peter and Mary Jane to walk in place… while turning 360 degrees.

And not only does the scene utilize a multi-directional turntable/treadmill, but it also features… a series of moving houses in the background, built to scale.

It is these moments, secretly spectacular, that make this show a feast for any theatre practitioner.

FINAL ANALYSIS: In many ways, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is a close cousin to Warren Beatty’s 1990 film Dick Tracy.  Both projects were created by insanely talented individuals and both are non-stop visual feasts.

Unfortunately, in both cases, the alchemical reaction of mixing such eclectic creative ingredients fail to create a fully successful rendering of the beloved property that’s being adapted.  At the same time, these projects are also prevented from being exclusively artistic triumphs since all the work and talent involved was focused around properties that are, in the end, not art, but pulp.

And while Beatty had a long-held passion to bring Dick Tracy to the screen, it’s clear from interviews and her overweening focus on Arachne that Julie Taymor did not have any deep-seeded feelings for Spider-Man. It feels like she took the job because the producers told her she could spend as much money as she wanted. Knowing that she’d never get such an opportunity with any of her true passion projects, Taymor decided that she could make due with a webslinger.

In the end Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark is nothing more than a GNP-budgeted version of a live arena show like Sesame Street Live, Walking With Dinosaurs or the upcoming Batman Live. If you’re over the age of twelve (and assuming you go on a night where none of the actors are nearly killed) you will exit the Foxwoods Theater both emotionally intoxicated by the brilliant theatricality of the production and hungover by the innate ludicrousness of the concept.

Feeling like a kid again has never felt so childish.

Instead of purchasing tickets to Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, a much smarter use of your money is to purchase my graphic novel Hell House: The Awakening. If you buy a copy, I’ll then let you follow me on Twitter for free!