When I was a teenager, I devoured comic books, especially about superheroes who were often tragic or conflicted figures. I haven’t spent much time with those stories or characters for years, but Know Theatre’s production of Hearts Like Fists took me back to the days of two-dimensional characters, clear delineation between good and evil and lots of slam-bam action.
The latter element might be the most enjoyable aspect of Know’s production, staged by the company’s associate artistic director, Tamara Winters, with a big contribution of fight choreography by John Baca. There are numerous scenes of physical clashes that crash and tumble across the stage. The combatants are the Crimefighters — the trio of Linnea Bond as Sally, Miranda McGee as Jazmin and Sola Thompson Nina, plus new recruit Maggie Lou Rader as Lisa, the show’s central character — and the nefarious Doctor X (James Creque). It’s obvious that a lot of rehearsing went into staging these rambunctious moments. They’re punctuated with colorfully projected POWs, WHUMPs, OOFs and ZONKs (a la the Batman TV show from the 1960s), as well as colorful lighting accents. Artistic Director Andrew J. Hungerford provided both scenic and lighting design.
Adam Szymkowicz’s script, largely written with the stilted tone of speakers in comic books, repeatedly employs the metaphor and the reality of broken hearts. Creepy Doctor X, abandoned after a lusty tryst with a willing but naïve nurse (Lisa DeRoberts), murders couples in love by creeping into their bedrooms and injecting them with a serum causing heart failure. If he can’t have love, no one can, he proclaims. His twisted opinion is that his victims should thank him, gratefully saying to one another, “I’d rather die in your arms than alone.”
Lisa (Rader), a beautiful, strong, capable and fearless young woman, unsuccessfully tries to stop Doctor X. She also happens to be a heartbreaker who knows it and sees nothing wrong with her behavior. After her battle with the doctor, she checks into the hospital with a minor wound, where she’s treated by handsome but aloof Peter (Andrew Ian Adams), a researcher, furiously seeking to assemble a mechanical device to replace his damaged heart. Without much pretext other than the story needs some motivation, they hook up.
Sally, Jazmin and Nina (who work at the hospital when they’re not fighting crime) and the nurse swoon over Peter every chance they get. He ignores them, but he’s gaga over Lisa. He fears rejection and tries to break it off, but he can’t .
I suspect you’re getting that this is pretty shallow stuff. Szymkowicz’s script tries hard to convey a message about the importance of love and true hearts, but it seems trite and clichéd. Of course, this is the patois of comic-book dialogue, but it’s hard to sort out whether we’re to it seriously or as tongue-in-cheek. Sad to say, it doesn’t really matter — it falls flat either way.
There are plenty of funny moments in this two-hour production. As the Crimefighters, Bond, Thompson and especially McGee (a master of quick glances and physical moments that spark laughs) are quite amusing as they stride onstage in step and arms akimbo. But too often, their performances are singular rather than as an amusing ensemble. Their scenes of predictable moral support for DeRoberts’ lovelorn nurse do offer a good laugh, especially with a supporting role for donuts from Holtman’s, a popular shop located just a few blocks north of Know Theatre in Over-the-Rhine.
Creque, a newcomer to Cincinnati, offers schizoid versatility as the menacing Doctor X. The creepy bad guy with glowing goggles pops up in dark moments as he stalks his next victims. He has occasional flashes of weird vulnerability, but he flips the switch quickly back to bad behavior.
Rader, a regular with Cincinnati Shakespeare (where she recently played confident Jo March in Little Women) has the distracting moves and glamorous appeal of a Victoria’s Secret model. From the moment she bolts onstage, she’s conveying that she’s in the driver’s seat, a gal who loves ’em and leaves ’em. But Symkowicz’s script unfolds with so little texture that Lisa’s relationship with Peter has no more depth than that of Archie and Veronica in old-time comics. There’s no reason for her to stick with him other than because the plot requires it.
Of course, Hearts Like Fists is parody. But Symkowicz’s script has Nina tell Peter that broken hearts in the past shouldn’t affect decisions about moving forward in love. That’s a pretty square message given the surrounding tomfoolery.
HEARTS LIKE FISTS , presented by Know Theatre of Cincinnati, continues through April 25.