By Hephzibah Dutt
“Where are all the girl action figures?! Where’s Black Widow??! Where’s Wonder Woman??!” And so begins Brick Street Theatre’s 60 minute rant, protest and exposé on the misogynist tendencies of the comic book genre and its holy pilgrimage site, Comicon.
Fangirls: An Improbable Cosplay is playwright, Jessie Salsbury’s venture into adapting her one-woman show into a one-act for four actors. Set at and around a Comicon in an unnamed city, three women of indeterminate age drag their friend Otto, a Comicon newbie, around. They try to find a panel to attend but whether in topic or the one-sided gender-representation on all the panels, sexist issues trigger the characters into taking turns pontificating upon the male gaze, mansplaining, the erasure of woman from the genre, and The Hawkeye Collective’s attempt at remediation. After getting kicked out of panel, the women decide to take action and start planning a protest. The hapless Otto (Manu Ajmani) is swept along, unwillingly at first, and then with a little bit more gusto. Their action plan involves all the features of a superhero operation: evading the enemy sentries (avoiding the night security guard), disguises (posing as distributors), stealing in the name of equity (removing all the male action figures from the displays), and of course, camping out in Jabba the Hut.
The strength of Salsbury’s adaptation is that the four characters offer varying responses to a topic that remains pertinent in and out of the comic book world. Bex’s hair-trigger reactions, Otto’s unintentional but inexcusable complicity, Elli’s refusal to be riled up, and Sophie’s attempts at balance make all the characters recognizable and relatable to some extent.
One of Brick Street Theatre’s goals as a production company is to put people on stage who have never been there before. This comes with a joyfully mixed bag of potentials and pitfalls. The actors’ relative inexperience is as apparent as their full-commitment to their characters. Ajmani’s unabashed portrayal of the blundering Otto is comically endearing. While Sarah Neary (Bex), Sierra Berry (Sophie) and Lindsay Hinman (Elli) play off each other well, embodying the personality differences between the women.
The script is unfortunately heavy-handed in presenting the charges against comic book and Comicon sexism. Lengthy scenes which should be dramatic, are rendered as wordy, albeit interesting, lectures. Under the onslaught of this didactic approach and the absence of a strong directorial hand, the young (in their craft) actors are left standing on stage, waiting out monologues. However, the plot line of the second half of the play is promising. A successful protest requires that the characters find common ground; this mandates a move towards each other, changes in tactics, as well as personal philosophy. The dynamism of this plot-construction offers future iterations of this project, both in script and staging, tremendous potential, and I look forward to seeing what will transpire.
All in all, Salsbury’s script is sure to tickle the sensibilities of a knowing audience—Comicon-themed inside jokes, references to pop culture and extremely current affairs abound and even extend into the creatively construed program flier (designed to read like a Comicon schedule and guide). I especially appreciated the homage to Baronness Emma Orczy, creator of the first superhero and unsung matriarch of the genre.