annie valentina & andrew kasprzak

Michael McPhee’s newest play Heroic, which plays at the Bus Stop Theatre as part of the Atlantic Fringe Festival, starts out with so much promise. We are introduced to Stargazer, played by a majestic-looking Annie Valentina, the strongest superhero in the World, and the Leader of the League of Guardians, an ass-kicking, crime-fighting gang of champions against evil. Yet, before we are able to see Stargazer’s power, intelligence, confidence and strength manifest itself she begins to spiral downward into self-doubt, she makes poor choices based on her rampant emotions, and crumbles under the mounting pressure of her status.

It seems as though McPhee is interested in humanizing these superheroes and exploring their flaws and how the paparazzi-style media attention and influence of social media and cyber bullying affect Superheroes, in the same way that they can wreak havoc on celebrity figures in our own world. The difficulty is that he saddles his protagonist, Stargazer, with so much baggage and psychological issues, that he robs her of the ability to exude the attributes that she needs in order to be a successful superhero. His other female character, Evergreen, is a safety liability who fangirls over everyone and treats saving the world like it’s really cool summer camp.  Conversely, even though Mindswipe is a misogynistic asshole and Zodiac is a paternalistic bastard, infuriatingly enough, their flaws don’t undermine their effectiveness as Heroes. They both infuse the League with a sense of confidence, strength, energy and common sense that one sees as being integral to the group being able to effectively combat super-villains. I doubt that the message of this play is supposed to be “Guys can get away with being douchebags and still be awesome at their jobs, but women just can’t handle the responsibility of taking on leadership roles,” but it’s difficult not to see that as Stargazer fails so spectacularly in doing the work she supposedly believes in because of some trolls on Twitter and her desire to return to her old life on the farm. McPhee attempts to give Evergreen the opportunity to become the League’s new star, but in the same way that he doesn’t show us Stargazer’s awesomeness and strength before her fall, he also doesn’t show us the evolution of Evergreen’s rise in status either. She also doesn’t ever win the respect or trust of her fellow teammates, which makes it difficult for the audience to see the ending as being anything but the dissolution of a functional, iconic league of heroes.

Annie Valentina is good at faltering and exuding anxiety as Stargazer and she has a sweet, flirtatiousness with Andrew Kasprzak’s Voidwalker, but she has a harder time commanding attention, taking status and exuding strength. Henricus Gielis as Mindswipe and David Rossetti as Zodiac bring beautiful energy and specificity and power and punch to their characters, which raise the stakes dramatically in the scenes they’re in. Overall, McPhee would benefit from harnessing more of that punch and infusing it into the show’s physicality and the arc of its stakes, and really working to allow Valentina to be the strongest, most compelling, most awesome and inspiring figure onstage, whether she is grappling with her own issues and being a complex human being or not. We want to see the Stargazer that Evergreen describes. She is who will capture our attention and our hearts. Gillian Clark has created a fun and fully realized character with Evergreen, but she often seems to be in the wrong play. She reminds me of a gender bent Joey from Friends, which is hilarious, yes, but I wouldn’t want Joey on my Superhero team.

Ultimately, Heroic is an ambitious undertaking for McPhee and the Doppler Effect, and as such, it lacks the polish of some of their other work. Yet, so much that is promising is here. How can you tell the story about superheroes while seeking to delve into their humanity without sabotaging what makes them super? How can you explore how gender intersects these ideas without being too didactic or falling into stereotypes? They are worthy questions. I hope McPhee keeps exploring them and keeps strengthening these characters and the world and the quandaries that he’s created for them. The theatre needs more three dimensional female superheroes for absolute sure.      

Heroic plays at the Bus Stop Theatre (2203 Gottingen Street) (and as a Co-Production with The Bus Stop Co-Op) at the following times: 

Fri Sept 4th – 7:05PM
Sat Sept 5th – 3PM
Sun Sept 6th – 9:45PM
Mon Sept 7th – 1:30PM
Tues Sept 8th – 8:55PM
Wed Sept 9th – 10:10PM
Thurs Sept 10th – 8PM
Sat Sept 12th – 10:40PM
Sun Sept 13th – 3:20PM