By Isaac Butler
As we stumbled punch drunk out of the Foxwoods Theatre, my wife and I grasped for ways to describe in words what we had just experienced.
“So,” Anne turned to me.
“Yeah. So that just happened. Somebody made that. And then we saw it.”
That, of course, was Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, a show so assaultive to both standards of narrative and your senses that coherent thoughts about it remain like eels slipping through your hands. Spider-Man instead provokes the kind of sputtering, post-show rant over beers that denizens of the Off-Off Broadway scene are well familiar with by now.
But we have to try, and we have to start somewhere. So let's start with something I quite like.
There is a part in Jonathan Lethem’s They Live where he discusses watching the Blake Edwards/Peter Sellars film The Party obsessively with a friend, trying to pinpoint the exact moment when it flies so hard off the rails that it is irredeemable. When, in other words, can you shut the VCR off content that you’ve seen everything good about the show?
No such breaking point exists in Turn Off The Dark. Instead, it is a series of breaking points. Every time you think to yourself this couldn’t possibly get worse, it does. By the middle of the second act as Our Hero faces his greatest crisis yet and the action stops so that a chorus of spider demons can sing a song about shoes, your jaw will drop with disbelief and conflicting emotions. On the one hand, you’ll be shocked things have gotten this bad. On the other, you’ll be shocked that it got even worse than it was half an hour ago when a Caribbean subway busker showed up to open the second act Rafifi-Style only to then disappear from the narrative, never to be seen again.
The above may read as snark, but it isn’t meant to be. This is sincere. I care about theatre. I care about the source material. I care about musicals. Spider-Man does considerable violence to all three. And what’s more, although it is in previews, the problems with it are fundamental to its conception and largely unfixable.
The first of these problems is that, title notwithstanding, it’s not really about Spider-Man, nor is it about any of the things that Spider-Man is about, nor is it concerned with any of Spider-Man’s concerns as a narrative project spanning multiple media over the past fifty years. Instead, it is about this dream Julie Taymor had this one time about the Greek demi-Goddess Arachne, the first spider. If you think I’m joking, Patrick Healy in the New York Times recently reminded us that “Ms. Taymor…said that she conceived of [Arachne] several years ago after having a dream about the transformation of a normal teenage boy into a powerful superhuman.”
Arachne never appears in the original story, so instead they shoe-horn her in via a Geek Chorus (get it?) who frame the action. Oh yeah, did I mention that nothing in the story actually happens? Right. Nothing in the story actually happens, because the story isn’t even really about Arachne. The story is instead really about a group of teenagers who are trying to devise The Greatest Spider-Man Story Ever Told. As they tell the story to each other, it comes alive into the musical that you see.
Or rather, it does for most of the show. The Taymor/Berger book gets bored of this conceit halfway through Act II and literally kicks them off the stage. But by then you already know that the show has no idea what it is doing, what story it is trying to tell or why. How do you know this? Because they open Act II with the Geek Chorus having an argument about what should happen next in the story and they constantly debate the meaning of the story they’re telling. Also, one of the Geeks (the female one) is explicitly Taymor’s stand-in. She comes up with both the Arachne stuff and the Taymor-invented villainess Swiss Miss which—she tells the audience and Geeks—“I just made up right now.” Also, she seems to find Spider-Man (or loving him, anyway) kind of ridiculous and stupid.
Externalizing your creative difficulties into a meta-narrative is a shopworn trick, and it can be executed effectively. Think David Foster Wallace’s Octet or Charlie Kauffman’s Adaptation. Here, however, the device sputters and breaks as soon as they flip the on switch. The Geek Chorus’ treatment is shot through with comic book fan self-loathing. The show demonstrates no understanding of why people—especially boys—entering puberty love Spider-Man so much. Instead, the show alternates between condescending to and laughing at them. It sees Spider-Man merely as a vehicle for male wish fulfillment and spectacle.
The Geek Chorus don’t need to be idealized. There is an unseemly edge to comic book love. I’ll cop to loving the Todd McFarlane/David Micheline Spider-Man Vs. Venom when it first came out in part because of MJ’s breasts and willingness to go to bed and practice light bondage with Peter whenever he wanted. At the same time, however, Spider-Man at its best takes themes about responsibility, becoming a man and living in the workaday world and explores them through the superhero medium. Buffy The Vampire Slayer begins doing the same thing for women in its second season (not for nothing is Buffy compared overtly to Spider-Man in Season Four). Spider-Man vs. Venom, after all is about obsessive love and being stalked in New York City in the 1990s. Peter Parker is poor. Spider-Man is disliked by the public at large. And on and on.
The musical doesn’t get this. It doesn’t get it to such a great extent that Uncle Ben no longer tells Peter that With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility (the phrase still appears, shouted by Peter at the Green Goblin during a fight scene.) Instead he tells him to Rise Above meaning to Rise Above the petty squabbles and provocations of the every day world. To transcend the pettiness of the self.
He also tells him this, one suspects, because “With great power comes great responsibility” is a fucking terrible song lyric. “Rise Above,” on the other hand, by being vague, flexible and slightly religious is an almost perfect name for a U2 song.
What does it mean, however to rise above? The show is not quite sure. Norman Osborn, after all, wants to rise above the human quite literally. It’s why he scrambles his DNA with various animal parts. And in the second act, as Peter Parker finally decides to Rise Above it all and reclaim his identity as Spider-Man, he sings a song whose logic (don’t listen to anyone else, don’t worry about everyday stuff, follow your heart) could double for George W. Bush’s justifications in Decision Points.
But wait. We were talking about Arachne and the Geek Chorus. See what I mean about the inability to form a coherent response to this show?
Let’s get back to Arachne, then, and let us explore the disasters of the book by skipping to the second act. Don’t worry about the first. It is essentially the first Spider-Man film—without Norman Osborn’s son but with a Geek Chorus and a Spider Goddess—compressed to ninety minutes, with song. It just barely makes sense if you remember the movie and there are some awful moments, but it is mostly harmless.
It’s the second act, where the narrative is largely original that the show continues doing the opposite of rising above over and over and over again. It drops down to a new plateau, hovers there for awhile and then falls again, a version of Inception made entirely of nightmares, or a tennis champ’s career played in reverse.
As mentioned before, Act II begins with a debate about what to do next, since The Green Goblin is dead. The Geek Chorus decides to have an Ugly Off, introducing The Sinister Six (with a different line-up than the comics) during the aforementioned Caribbean Busker song. Spider-Man defeats them all within minutes of their introduction. Later on, it will be revealed that he kills all of them. Remember this.
We next jump to the section of Spider-Man 2 where Spider-Man decides to quit being Spider-Man because he can’t handle the pressure: he’s late for school, he neglects Aunt May etc. He has a conversation with MJ where she identifies herself as his friend (not girlfriend). Then he has a dream where he maybe has sex with Arachne. The sequence is so unclear that the characters explicitly say they don’t know what happened. When, due to this dream, Peter sleeps through MJ’s show, he races to find her and she asks him whether or not he’s seeing “another woman.”
Uh-oh. My unmentioned-ever-in-this-show Spider Sense Is Tingling! They can’t even keep track of relationship continuity here! Oh well, we’ll ignore going more in depth on this because….
…When Peter quits being Spider-Man, Arachne appears again. Here she suddenly announces that only Spider-Man can free her from the curse she’s under (he can? There’s a way to end the curse of being transformed into an immortal spider by the Goddess Athena?) and decides to provoke him into donning his suit again. So she and her Spider Furies create an illusion that the Green Goblin and the Sinister Six are back from the dead and wreaking havoc all over the world.
The problem is, Peter Parker doesn’t believe it’s real because The Daily Bugle refuses to print anything about it(?). So all the spiders sing a song about shoes and then Arachne goes and beats J. Jonah Jamison into changing his mind. This provokes Peter into becoming Spider-Man but without his Arachne-woven suit he seems to have lost his powers (?!) and then maybe gets them back (?!?!) and then jumps off a bridge or maybe a building to save Mary Jane because he didn’t get his web shooting powers (?!?!?!?!) because then obviously he wouldn’t need jump off the bridge or building or anyway big municipal structure if he could just shoot webs at her (?!?!??!?!??!?!).
Once this happens, Arachne appears and reveals that it was all an illusion. Except she really has captured Mary Jane, and Spider-Man has two choices: he can join Arachne in the Astral Plane or kill Arachne. Shades here of The Dark Knight. Arachne wants to be killed by a super hero who claims that he doesn’t kill people.
Except here’s the problem. When the Green Goblin and the Sinister Six reappear, Peter says that it’s impossible because they’re all dead. Given that we see Spider-Man fight and vanquish them the only way for them to be dead is that he’s killed them.
Oh well. He now doesn’t kill people let’s say. So he fights Arachne to try to get to MJ. It doesn’t work. He’s got his hands wrapped across Arachne’s throat and she says something like “do it, kill me!” And he refuses, agreeing instead to marry her.
At which point she announces via song that something (unintelligible) has happened and as a result, she’s freed from the curse without Peter having to really do anything. Maybe she’s felt human emotions again? It’s unclear. But then again, the rules of this curse are never explained. So, yeah. She’s gone. She can finally die and Spidey doesn’t need to do it.
And then (oh God give me strength) Peter Parker sings “Rise above” again, and as he does Arachne lowers into a trap while her mortal form lowers from the ceiling having hanged itself.
Yes. While a character is singing about rising above, most other things on stage are sinking.
This is not the only moment in the show like this. Julie Taymor can manage visual spectacle like nobody’s business, and she is one of the most imaginative directors around. This ability does not, however, a good director make. Her films and stage productions often feel like essays by a student possessed of great ideas but no understanding of grammar, sentence and paragraph structure nor any idea of why these things are valuable. She does not know when not to use her restless imagination, nor does she seem to know (or care) about how to stage non-spectacle events in her work. In sports terms, the fundamentals are weak.
In Titus and The Lion King-- the two projects which introduced her to a mainstream audience—certain factors helped disguise this. The images in Titus are Shakespeare’s, literalized by Taymor. She doesn’t have to supply the meaning, the text does. Everyone seeing The Lion King probably knows the story, The material (or really “property”) is fixed and unchangeable and Taymor did not yet have the clout of a long-running, successful Broadway show. But look closely at both and her weaknesses are still there. Multiple times in Titus, the actors don’t seem to know what they’re saying. I dare you to tell me what happens during the instrumental of I Just Can’t Wait To Be King, and any time a scene requires just talking (between, say, Scar and the Hyenas) you can feel Taymor’s attention wandering somewhere else.
Spider-Man magnifies these problems. Witness the big duet between Peter and MJ after he’s missed her Off-Broadway debut. They have a fight. Then they sing. It is completely unclear in the song whether they are actually singing to each other for real or whether we are hearing two counterpointed internal monologues. In other words… do they hear what the other person is saying? You’ll never know from watching the staging, which features them wandering listlessly in a circle in the center of the stage. Sometimes, Peter stands directly in front of MJ while she’s singing. As this song leads directly to our hero’s decision to give up being Spider-Man, it’s kind of an important storytelling beat to make clear.
Moments like this abound. The sets (by George Tsypin) pull largely from Steve Ditko, who co-created the character of Spider-Man for Marvel Comics. Vertiginous lines converge on ever shifting and multiplying vanishing points. Forced perspectives are everywhere. Spirals and concentric circles are used to great effect. Sometimes your mind has to work to figure out what POV you’re watching from as sets turn upside down, or rotate in and out. It’s lovely.
When Spider-Man dons the suit and starts fighting crime, the villains are outfitted in puppet theatery masks that make them look like Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy characters. They also wear 1940s pinstripe suits and carry tommy guns even though the story takes place in the present day.
Steve Ditko and Chester Gould are very different artists working in very different periods and their visual styles (like writing styles) convey different kinds of meaning to the viewer. There’s a reason it’s called an artist’s “visual vocabulary.” Steve Ditko’s drawing style externalizes the anxieties of his world; It’s like Kubrik gone psychedelic, but the human anatomy of his drawings is largely realistic. Chester Gould drew period grotesqueries where the awfulness in the criminal heart is made hilarious and horrible by deforming their physical features. The former is as much about internal conflict as anything else, the latter is about a Manichean struggle of good vs. evil. For you musical theatre folks, this would be like dropping a song from Phantom into Into the Woods. They don’t belong together; even my wife who doesn’t read comics could see it.
Incoherence suffuses the show like a virus on all levels. The different design elements don’t go together. The web of the story is too overburdened to ever weave itself into basic sense, let alone the kind of delight we expect from this sort of thing. And, despite spending slightly more than the annual budget of the Falkland Islands on the show, no one involved seems to have been watching out for the basics of three-dimensional storytelling on stage. This is how you end up with someone singing “Rise Above,” while (via expensive flying and hydraulics) everything sinks.
It is this incoherence that dooms the show, not the U2 songs, nor the untested lead actor nor the stunt work. The songs are actually not bad. Some of them (particularly the first number for Arachne) are quite lovely. Bono and The Edge have some fun with different styles, putting microtonal scales in Arachne’s songs, using more straightforward rock for Peter Parker, pairing programmed polyrhythms with cellos and horns and, yes, having one cameo appearance for Edge’s signature echoing guitar. I can’t say I remember any of the songs, but then again, I don’t remember any of the songs in Light in the Piazza either.
There are a couple of awful songs in there, but they are awful because they have no reason for existing. It’s unclear how the song about couture shoes came into existence. As a friend of mine asked on Facebook, did the creative team come to Bono and say “we need a song about shoes here?” or did Bono say, “hey folks, I have this crap song about shoes, can we use it for the show?” A similar lack of necessity affects a military song about Norman Osborn getting undercut by his competitors.
As for the actors, they do the best they can. Reeve Carney acquits himself well in the part of Peter. He’s charming, he’s appropriately dweeby and conflicted and sincere. His voice is rocky and expressive, although in the performance I saw he was clearly losing it. Next to Normal’s Jennifer Damiano does fine as Mary Jane Watson and her voice is beautiful. Patrick Page plays Norman Osborn with an inexplicable Foghorn Leghorn accent, but he’s always up for a fun piece of villainy.
The stunts are not so much spectacular as terrifying to behold. Perhaps the view is different on the balcony, but the aerial sequences happening directly over our heads felt far more dangerous than they probably were. They lack the peculiar safe-fear that good circus performances possess. When Spider-Man leaps into the air only to land (deliberately) on what appears to be the harness keeping The Green Goblin aloft and then fights him directly over your head, it’s hard to think of anything else than 9.8 meters per second, squared.
And during the curtain call, as the largely foreign audience has to be goosed into a standing ovation, you may find yourself thinking about what the show’s Sixty Five Million Dollar budget is worth. You’ll find yourself calculating the number of showcase code productions it could pay for (2600), the number of countries it has a larger budget than (13). You might note that the Winklevoss’ lawsuit against Mark Zuckerberg settled out of court for a Spider-Man, that the most expensive apartment to buy in Manhattan costs exactly One Spiderman, that the US government has a Spider-Man to spend on developing fuel cell technology, or that the GOP spent a Spider-Man running anti-Nancy Pelosi ads in 2010. The descendants of victims of the Armenian Genocide are demanding One Spider-Man in damages, and in Wisconsin, picking up the pieces after a massive flood in September will cost a Spider-Man. Incidentally, the NEA's budget is Two Spidermen. Ultimately, a Spider-Man can buy you a lot of things, including, sadly, this show.
NOTE: The performance of Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark that I saw was, obviously, in previews. I paid full price for my ticket and I have no deal with producers where they give me free tickets in exchange for waiting to see a show when they want me to. I also think that custom is somewhat arcane and should be rethought, but that’s a post for another day. The show at this point has had a longer run than most of the plays I’ve directed put together, and the issues outlined above aren’t going to change in a meaningful way, even if the show itself might improve in some small ways prior to its opening, whenever that turns out to be.
UPDATE: Two minor errors, pointed out by a commenter, have been fixed above. The Daily Bugle was referred to as The Daily Planet and The Sinister Six was referred to as The Furious Five. Both of these have been fixed. Thanks, Rob K! And the line above about the NEA's budget was suggested by Travis Bedard.