Arts Desk

Heroes, Hold the Super: Suilebhan’s REALS

Masked crimefighter Rorschach gets beaten down by reality in Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons's WATCHMEN. First published between 1986 and '87, the 12-part series remains comics's most celebrated interrogation of the super-hero trope.

It's been more than a decade since a summer movie season has passed without a big-budget superhero release. Even super-anti-hero comics, like WATCHMEN, the brilliant, downbeat Reagan-era series about how the existence of superheroes would improve exactly nothing, and KICK-ASS, a more recent, less brilliant gloss on similar ideas, have been mined for the movies.

Playwright Gwydion Suilebhan has wondered for a long time what makes the masked-crimefighter trope so resilient, and why so few people have attempted to translate it to the stage. (Perhaps because Julie Taymor, Bono & Edge, and a trauma ward full of stunt players in Spider-Man togs make it look so inexpensive and easy?) "Why should we be ceding this territory to film?" Suilebhan wants to know. "Why shouldn't we be going there on stage?"

His latest opus, REALS, is "a play that asks what it means to fight crime and do good," Suilebhan says, "and what's beneath of the masks of the people who do it." REALS gets a one-off "bootleg" performance — meaning a quick-and-dirty production with as much rehearsal as can be crammed into one day, though the cast have learned their lines ahead of time — tonight at the Corner Store in Eastern Market. An earlier draft got a reading at Woolly Mammoth last year, and there was a workshop production at St. Louis's Hotcity Theater in June. Suilebhan hopes the various test-flights and revisions will have the show ready for a full run with Taffety Punk Theatre Company — where he is resident playwright as well as a member of the board — in 2012. He says the gestation period has been no longer than than of other plays he's written. "If I've run up against anything, it's been a nervousness among a more high-minded theatre crowd to take the subject matter seriously."

Taffety Punk company member Kimberly Gilbert will appear in tonight's production in the role of Belt, a part written especially for her. "She's a martial artist who may or may not have a superpower that allows her to detect when someone is lying," Suilebhan says. "She doesn't want to take being a Real too seriously, so she pokes fun at it even as she's doing it."

Sounds like a lot of fans' relationship with their costumed heroes.

"I am a huge, lifelong comic book and superhero fan," sayeth the playwright. "This comes from a place of self-investigation, not external criticism."

REALS will be performed tonight only at The Corner Store, 900 South Carolina Ave. SE, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10; call (202) 544-5807 to reserve. The performance will also be streamed live on Arena Stage's New Play TV.

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