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Tribe of Fools, one of the many inventive area theater companies who have grown through annual Fringe productions, reprises their 2013 hit Antihero. Their dynamic shows are known for outrageous theatricality and social conscience, and Antihero is a great example of their talent for joining these two seemingly contradictory approaches.
In Antihero, comic book nerds clash while being studied by Jennifer Walters (Colleen Hughes), a feminist grad student exploring how moral fiber and worldview are shaped by our preferred fictions. Peter Smith plays The Man with No Name, a Batman fan who turns vigilante after several disastrous run-ins with the Philadelphia Parking Authority. His nemesis, Parker Peters (Kyle Yackoski), prefers Superman and writes tickets for the PPA (a source of many jokes, given his name), and both are flummoxed by, yet smitten with, Wonder Woman. Comic book views merge with mundane real-life experiences, leading each to believe that he is right and the other is wrong.
Antihero begins, however, with a wild superhero movie-style fight in which The Man battles Parker and four ninja-like assistants. Fight director Michael Cosenza makes the brawl as impossibly over the top as those film confrontations; no matter how many punches and kicks land savagely, the fighters bounce right back. The battle is a ballet of violence, including parkour (that heart-pounding vertical gymnastic style of urban running and climbing) and eerily pretty slo-mo moments in green light and silence. Smith's set nicely assists with open space and securely solid walls, lit vividly by Tim Martin.
The parody is dead on, and the fighters's skills and speed are impressive. Another huge fight that hilariously mimics early fighting video games is just as impressively elaborate, athletic, and accurate. Both are complimented by appropriate, extra-loud music by Damien Figueras.
In the comic book store, Antihero broadly satirizes nerds (think TV's The Big Bang Theory) with many comic book in-jokes, but also creates genuine characters worthy of our concern. Yackoski plays Parker Peters broadly, but with a sincere boorishness that makes us feel sorry for him when his stale pick-up lines fail with Jennifer, whom store owner Joey (Zachary Chiero) allows to stage a fundraiser for a black man killed by cops in the neighborhood (dramatic in 2013, timely for 2016). Her group Vaginal Anarchy, with Leah Holleran and Tara Demmy, performs a dance to an angry rap song — a tap dance — that's just amazing.
The Man believes he's right for opposing the PPA and crime in general a la Batman, though his improvised superhero persona — just a hoody and goggles — fails hilariously at dispensing justice. Parker, meanwhile, sees the PPA as society's first line of defense against anarchy, and is outraged when a "real" cop demands that her parking ticket be torn up. He embraces Superman's role as society's protector with similarly humorous failure.
Their inability to become the heroes they worship doesn't stop them from seeing each other as the enemy, and that's when Antihero excels at another level, in a final physical confrontation that exceeds expectations and abandons parody for something more real.
In this, Tribe of Fools achieves the unlikely, lampooning entertaining violence while entertaining us with well-crafted examples of it, and then pulling the rug out from under us to reveal the violence's stark reality.
What, When, Where
Antihero. By Terry Brennan, Nick Mazzuca, and Peter Smith, Terry Brennan directed. Through September 23, 2016 at the Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine St., Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com.
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