The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil
Time Out says
A comic-strip heroine doesn’t quite transition to three dimensions in an adaptation that could use a little more zip.
The action kicks off quick in The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil. No sooner has young Scarlet (Chloe Baldwin) entered her father’s super-secret WWII-era laboratory (so secret that it’s located…in their landlady’s basement) than she is doing battle with a dastardly spy, Evanna Keil (Elizabeth MacDougald), and getting shot by a pair of science-y ray machines. Those rays give her the power of invisibility, which, luckily, she soon learns to turn on and off, but which, unluckily, her father makes her swear to never use. Cut to 1948: Scarlett, now a reporter, is once again doing battle with Evanna, who’s using the mind-control secrets she stole from Scarlett’s father to attempt world domination for the Soviet Union.
If this plot sounds like the kind of thing that belongs in a 1940s comic strip, that’s because it is. The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil was, in fact, a popular ’40s comic strip. Written by and drawn by Chicago native Russell Stamm and launched in the Chicago Daily Times, it was an early example of the kinds of female-starring superhero stories that we honestly still need many more of in 2017.
Newly adapted into a standalone play by Barbara Lhota and directed by Leigh Barrett, this production aims to capture much of the whiz-bang wonder that superhero stories used to embody—and, of course, the kickass brand of femininity that Babes with Blades embodies in all their productions. The show’s sets mostly consist of comic-strip style projections designed by G. “Max” Maxin IV, with captions accompanied by voiceover from Scarlet (sound by Sarah Espinoza) that further ground the show in its old-school, comic-strip roots.
The problem, however, is that all the whiz-bangery and ass-kickery get dragged down by a script that would be much stronger at 90 minutes than its current 120. Many scenes extend well beyond their natural endpoint, with the energy dropping even further during a whole series of momentum-killing scene changes. The cast is game, and the fight choreography (by Libby Beyreis) is on point, but the actors are too often trying to muscle through on sheer moxie. It’s no accident that the two strongest performances—Aneisa Hicks as put-open reporter Jean Sharp and Lisa Herceg as movie-star-slash-brilliant-scientist Hedy Labarr—are also the most nuanced and grounded. Scarlet O’Neil is certainly a character worth reviving, but this rendition can’t quite master the jump from pen-and-ink to flesh-and-blood.
Babes With Blades at the Factory Theater. By Barbara Lhota, based on the comic strip by Russell Stamm. Directed by Leigh Barrett. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs; one intermission.