The Lincoln Center Festival in New York used to call itself the Serious Fun Festival. It’s a great concept — art that tells you you’re going to have a good old time while also letting you know that you’re going to be challenged. It’s the way I think of Company One’s summer show every year — thoughtful, politically and socially engaged, and a whole lot of fun. “How We Got On” last year, “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” the year before.
Now, just in time to save the world it’s the family-friendly “Astro Boy & The God of Comics,” Natsu Onoda Power’s smart (and, yes, seriously fun) mash-up of the comic-book superhero’s story and that of his creator, Osamu Tezuka (through Aug. 16). The Japanese comic book and TV series fueled Power’s imagination at 10, and 30 years later that imagination is in full flight.
Astro Boy makes quite an elaborate entrance himself. Or herself, as played by Gianella Flores, flying (sort of) onto the Boston Center for the Arts stage to reassure us that he will make sure the planet doesn’t burn up. After his successful mission, which presumably is his last, the story is told in reverse chronological order, leading to the early childhood of Tezuka.
For more of Tezuka’s backstory, check out Andrea Shea’s feature on the play, but what’s most compelling about the presentation is the way that Power weaves Astro Boy’s story into Tezuka’s, with dashes of her own concerns about racial stereotyping, war, and other issues. Astro Boy’s fictional creator has a lot in common with Tezuka, though not the origin story of how the mad scientist created Astro Boy after his son was killed in a futuristic car crash after cars are deemed so safe that they can drive themselves — something that, of course, is being talked about today. (Incidentally, get there early as it's general admission and it's not easy to see the screen, which is vital, from every seat on the sides.)
Tezuka apparently thought that science could bring peace to the world; Power isn’t so sure. For all of Astro Boy’s good cheer, there’s a competing sadness — the civilian casualties of war; the obsession of work to the detriment of family, particularly of children); racial stereotyping (in a section asking why Japanese figures are white).
The mood of the show, though, is upbeat. The talented actors are all enjoying themselves playing multiple characters — and multitasking as they help create the drawings onstage — and the enjoyment is contagious. The drawings and much of the acting honors the cheesiness of the original cartoons, if honors is the right word. I have to admit that I turned away from the manga style of animation when it came to the fore in the early 1960s. It seemed so obviously inferior to what I had grown up with in terms of American animation, particularly from Warner Brothers (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck et al).
Be that as it may, Power maintains a simple way of telling the story (though hardly simple-minded). She pays tribute to her childhood in a very adult and artistic way. That said, many of the 12 chapters in the story overstay their welcome. The 80 minutes could be even tighter. I also felt myself longing for more of a “wow” factor from either the production or the story. Again, Power is playing to the basic matter-of-factness of “Astro Boy,” but I was hoping for the socks to get knocked off at some point.
Even with the hosiery in place, though, I would put “Astro Boy & The God of Comics” high up on the to-do list. Mounting Power’s fascinating play so well is another feather in the cap of Company One. (Next season looks like equally interesting fare.) If you’re looking for theatrical fun this is the place to go. Seriously.