Adventures of Caveman Robot
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 13, 2006
Just about every time I go to the Brick, that hotbed of theatrical energy on the fringe of Williamsburg, I get blasted out of my seat by the impressive talent in the house. Adventures of Caveman Robot, an almost preposterously ambitious new musical by Jeffrey Lewonczyk and Debby Schwartz, based on the comic book character created by Jason Robert Bell and Shoshanna Weinberger, is no exception. Here, for example, you will see Ian W. Hill, one of indie theatre's most versatile performers, rap something called "The Gorillasburg Address" while dressed in a gorilla suit and a big top hat (he plays, among other characters, a villainous primate named Ape Lincoln); you'll also enjoy Hill teaming up with terrific clown Devon Hawks Ludlow as a pair of bizarre mad scientists who happen to be brothers—they rip through their hilarious material as if they'd been working together as a comedy duo for decades. And Kevin Draine, Jorge Cordova, and Robin Reed parade around in costume designer Julianne Kroboth's wildly imaginative creations as a sextet of wacky, off-kilter super-villains: a former teen idol-turned-pyromaniac called Burn-Out, a strange effete French master hypnotist named Simon Says, an S&M-ish sexpot with freakish bionic arms known as Mistress Svetlana, and others just as kooky.
Not everything in Caveman Robot works, but you have to admire the immensity of its vision and the sincerity of its exuberant desire to entertain. Lewonczyk, who not only has written the book and collaborated on the lyrics but is also the director, co-producer, and an unbilled actor (on video) for this extravaganza (full disclosure: he's also a sometime contributor to nytheatre.com), has taken on the colossal job of writing and staging an original multimedia musical about a comic book character that very few people have ever heard of. That last bit is important: one of the most impressive things about Lewonczyk's well-crafted libretto is the deft way it doles out a great deal of exposition, easily bringing the uninitiated in the audience (such as myself) completely up to speed about the back story of Caveman Robot, the paradoxical union of primitive homo sapiens and futuristic high-tech who is the lovable hero of the show.
I'll try to lay the thing out for you briefly: Caveman Robot is the resident super-hero of the city of Monumenta, a place not unlike our own home town though in a seemingly alternate universe (the plot references, for example, a super-genius named John Zarathustra, D.D.S. as being president in the 1980s; Zarathustra will turn out to be Caveman Robot's arch nemesis). Caveman Robot is indeed a caveman who somehow (I confess I didn't quite get all the intricacies of how this was accomplished; don't try it at home) has been kept alive for millennia thanks to a life-giving dodecahedron, some kind of futuristic scientific whatsit that is maintained by Tuttlewell Laboratories. Professor Tuttlewell and his niece Megan (she reminded me of Velma from Scooby Doo, but much brainier) are Cavey's caretakers and best friends; Megan, it appears, would like to be even more than that.
Okay, so everything is hunky-dory in Monumenta except that all the various arch-villains in town hate that they are constantly being foiled by the super-powerful, super-sincere Cavey. Someone else hates Cavey, too: Loser Pete, a sad-sack little guy whose every step forward in life seems to be impeded by Caveman Robot; as he confides in "Loser's Pete's Song," a clever music-video parody that is the most effective musical number in the show, he's lost his apartment, his girlfriends, and his job to (inadvertent) incidents brought on by Cavey's crime-fighting.
Enter Edison and Franklin Park, two ultra-brilliant scientists who are brothers; Franklin is, also, quite insane. The two are working for an as-yet undisclosed third party and are recruiting all of Monumenta's bad guys to form a team that is originally supposed to be called the Terrible Ten but eventually has to be scaled back to the Nefarious Nine when Ape Lincoln refuses to join. This assemblage of bizarro baddies rivals anything the folks at the Batman or Marvel Comics franchises ever dreamed up: I've told you about Burn-Out, Simon Says, and Mistress Svetlana, and now I'll add to the list a Nazi whose brain has been transplanted into the body of a penguin, a man whose voice is so loud that even if he whispers he can knock down entire buildings with the impact, and a fellow called Mr. Tense who can deflect bullets from his body because he's so, well, tense.
So the Park brothers bring all these nasties together and devise a can't-miss plan to defeat and destroy Caveman Robot once and for all. Will they succeed? Will Megan be able to save her beloved Cavey? Will Loser Pete side with the bad guys, or will he see the light? These and other questions are, indeed, answered as Adventures of Caveman Robot wends its way through 19 scenes and two acts of hokey but heartfelt dialogue, songs, dances, and pow-bam-zonk fight sequences.
Much of the play is quite funny, especially as realized by Kroboth's zany costumes and the skillful cast; for example, a recurring joke in which Edison Park consistently forgets Loser Pete's name is put over masterfully by Hill and Chris Harcum (as the hapless Pete). The songs are uneven; I wondered how necessary they finally were to the piece, which is more of a "fightsical" (to borrow the name of a budding genre being developed by folks like Tim Haskell and the Vampire Cowboys) than a musical: the signature "numbers" of the show are elaborate live-action fight sequences rather than traditional song-and-dance turns. To that end, Caveman Robot would undeniably benefit from the talents of a fight director like Haskell or Qui Nguyen—someone who could really provide the stylish, polished choreography that these pivotal climactic segments require and deserve.
Multimedia consists of video projected on three different screens, including some really lovely abstract bits that represent Mater Vox, the sophisticated computer operating system controlling Cavey's wiring at Tuttlewell Labs; this is all impressively well-executed, which sometimes jars with the delightfully imaginative but decidedely low-tech aesthetic of the costumes and other staging elements. There are in fact three different attitudes seemingly at play in Caveman Robot: a neatly realized high-tech approach; a wacky, downtown-y "let's put on a show" energy; and the sweetly parodic but never campy sincerity of the story itself, which presumably comes from Caveman Robot's creator, Jason Robert Bell. These three concepts don't always mesh smoothly.
Bell, by the way, takes the title role as the super-hero he created originally for the comics; he's a charmer as the towering, aluminum-coated lug, offering a bona fide star turn in a show brimming with indie theatre stars. The only other cast member I haven't mentioned thus far is Hope Cartelli, who plays Megan with the requisite pluck and repressed sexiness; she only has one big number in the show ("His Robot Queen") and she gives it her all.
Adventures of Caveman Robot is fun and ingratiating. Lewonczyk tells us in his director's note in the program that the company has had a "heck of a time doing it," and so all we need to do is we relax and have a heck of a time enjoying it.