Much like Dexter Morgan, graphic artist Jeff Lindsay’s darkly comic creation, uses his quench for serial killing to off other killers, so, too, does Doctor X, the deranged murderer with an MD, think he is doing his own type of public service. Doctor X, played with nimble exuberance by Flux Theatre Ensemble artistic director August Schulenberg in the best stage performance to which I have ever witnessed him commit, has made it his mission to kill happy lovebirds in their sleep, thus preventing them from knowing the pain of broken hearts.
And remarkably, despite the many craft ways in which director Kelly O’Donnell has replicated a comic book feel for the New York stage production of Hearts Like Fists, it never feels lowbrow or churlish at all. That is largely due to the seamless way in which playwright Adam Szymkowicz, one of the leading theatrical voices of his generation, intertwines themes both humorous and mature together. And it is also due to the way O’Donnell and the Flux cast and crew embrace his ideas with both deftness and heft.
Doctor X’s lone enemy seems to be a syndicate known as the Crimefighters (Becky Byers, Rachael Hip-Flores, and Aja Houston), who attempt to stop his murderous rampage with less than perfect results. But they find a new ally in Lisa (Marnie Schulenberg). Buxom, thin, beautiful, Lisa herself doesn’t know heartbreak. But that changes when she starts dating a doctor named Peter (Chinaza Uche), who tells her that while her heart is strong, his has been damaged by disappointment in the matters of love. He has designed an artificial heart, and aspires to perform the first transplant on himself. Their different experiences lead to a turbulent start. Peter wants to bolt, while Lisa is incredulous at her first taste of abandonment, and both actors chart their characters’ seriocomic situations with careful calibration. So, too, does the always terrific Susan Louise O’Connor as a nutso nurse who pines for Peter while she herself ignores the one who longs for her (I won’t disclose who that is here).
Szymkowicz provides plenty of sugar to make his complicated medicine about crooked hearts go down smoothly. His dialogue comes riddled with memorably arch lines – “You have a face like a bowl of worms,” “You’re building a wall around your candy shell; you’re afraid I might eat it!” – that aren’t just hysterical, they’re psychologically accurate. He has created a fun show that refuses to be dumbed down.
It is also a show that takes full visual advantage of its comic-book sensibilities. O‘Donnell has managed to fill the potentially limiting space of the Secret Theatre with plenty of fun stagecraft to buttress its scenes, from Will Lowry’s colorful set design to Kia Rogers’ pulsating lighting set-up to, most especially, fight director Adam Swiderski’s battle choreography, mixing ninja movement with more gymnastic scenes of violence that feel authentic, never pantomimed. And though Szymkowicz could trim what feels like an extended climax, O’Donnell ensures that her terrific ensemble maintains a brisk pace for Fists, one of the more riotous and satisfying theatrical productions to emerge all season long. His imagination and her vision? Now those are what I call superpowers.
Hearts Like Fists
Presented by Flux Theatre Ensemble at the Secret Theatre, 42-02 23rd St, Long Island City. Thru December 15. www.fluxtheatre.org.
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