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‘Batman Returns Returns’ with silliness at Mirrorbox Theatre in Cedar Rapids
Movie spins into a parody play with song, dance and a Christmas tree
Holy Holidays! Robin isn’t swooping in with a pow! bam! wow! But the Penguin, Alfred, a drag queen Catwoman and a female Caped Crusader are bringing festive fun to Cedar Rapids with “Batman Returns Returns,” onstage at Mirrorbox Theatre through Sunday, Dec. 18.
That’s not a hiccup. The title refers to the many happy returns in this satirical take on the campy television series that morphed into darker movies over the past 50 years.
“I think more than anything, the function of (the repetition) is to just signal that it’s a parody,” director Cavan Hallman said.
If you go
What: “Batman Returns Returns”
Where: Mirrorbox Theatre, 1200 Ellis Blvd. NW, Cedar Rapids
When: Dec. 14 to 18, 2022; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $20; mirrorboxtheatre.com/returns/
Since characters belt out tune every now and then, is it a bona fide musical or a play with music?
“I would call it almost a karaoke-style musical,” Hallman said. “I believe we have eight actual songs, with a couple of reprises sprinkled in there, and it’s all tracked. And again, they’re parodies of pop songs and things that are going to be recognizable to a lot of the audience.”
For example, Hallman said the Penguin — the umbrella-wielding waddler played by the fleet-footed Jason Alberty — “expresses his innermost desires” in the song “Human Connection,” a play on Kermit the Frog’s “Rainbow Connection.”
While Hallman said the show “is set in the time of silliness, the majority of the song parodies are from the ’90s,” including new takes on Backstreet Boys and Chumbawamba hits.
Anna Slife is returning to Mirrorbox Theatre to put the moves under the actors’ feet.
“I think her choreography is just really well-suited to creating this feeling of joy and fun and silliness,” Hallman said, “so it just felt like she was going to be the perfect fit.”
Audience members also will recognize plot points from “Batman Returns," the 1992 superhero film starring Michael Keaton in the title role, with Danny DeVito as the Penguin, Michelle Pfeiffer at Catwoman and Christopher Walken as scheming industrialist ogre Max Shreck (spelled Shrek in the parody play).
“The biggest shift is probably that Alfred (Aaron Murphy) has a bigger role in the musical than he does in the movie,” Hallman said. “He ultimately serves as the narrator, so he kind of fills in the gaps.”
Of course, casting a man as Catwoman (Cameron Byrd) and a woman as Batman (Anna Barnts) shakes up the roles a bit, as well.
This all happened because the script — conceived and created by The Museum of Human Achievement, Terror Pigeon and Megan Tabaque in Austin, Texas — leaves clues that it is open to interpretation.
Lead playwright Megan Tabaque, who wrote “Cycle Play” produced by Mirrorbox Theatre this past February, pitched “Batman Returns Returns” to Hallman when she was in Cedar Rapids to see “Cycle Play.”
“She pitched this in the most charming way,“ he said. ”She said, ‘So I’m not gonna put on a hard sell with this, but I will say that the only play I’ve ever written that consistently sold out was this adaptation.’ …
“It didn’t surprise me,” Hallman said, “because the title alone just makes me smile. So certainly, it was pitched in a gentle mercenary kind of way.
“But once I got a chance to dig into it, it is even more fun than the idea implies.”
An advocate for new plays, Hallman said he generally treats the text as sacred, and doesn’t change up the dialogue or make cuts in the script.
“When we received the script, there were three places where it basically just says, ‘A song is gonna go in here, and it’s gonna be kind of about this.’ So there's just so much room for interpretation and to speak to the talents of our specific cast in our community,” he noted.
One such spot involves the transformation of Selina Kyle “from self-described corn dog into the sultry Catwoman.”
“With Eastern Iowa’s premier drag queen playing Catwoman, it became clear that this number had to be a direct drag lip sync number — something that the writers of the play probably never imagined, but gives us this fun opportunity to again, speak to the talents of the people who are part of our production,” Hallman said.
He also saw another door swing open for casting a woman as Batman.
“Anna is an amazing singer with this great gravelly voice,” Hallman said. “We’re taking a lot of inspiration from ‘Batman Returns,’ but also allowing ourselves the freedom to pull on the whole Batman canon. And I think especially from Christian Bale and beyond, and really even, when you think about Michael Keaton … in the Batsuit there’s this silliness where everybody's voice kind of drops an octave.
“Once we decided to move in this direction, where there would be some gender-fluidity and we’re kind of playing with and looking at some of these gender roles, Anna’s voice — I just heard it. I just heard it in my head, saying ‘I’m Batman.’ ”
Other familiar characters from “Batman Returns“ making the leap to the stage include the Ice Princess, the Mayor, Commissioner Gordon, the Penguin’s Red Triangle Gang. The play’s ensemble cast also become “assorted cats and penguins,” Hallman said. And the Paperboy from the movie prologue gets a larger role in the play.
Alberty’s Penguin also won’t be as dark as DeVito’s.
The Bat look
“Jason’s just, well number one, he is incredibly fun and creative and funny,” Hallman said. “His take on the Penguin is definitely pulling in elements from that Adam West kind of era, where it’s not as deeply disturbing as Danny DeVito’s interpretation.
“One of the things I wanted to hold on to — one of the images that's seared into my mind from the original movie — is when Danny DeVito’s Penguin gets really worked up, he starts frothing at the mouth with black spittle. We're definitely gonna capture that essence, but with less of a focus on that kind of realistic and disturbing (aspect), and more campy.”
Costume-wise, Catwoman’s bodysuit “is absolutely happening,” Hallman said, but “the overarching idea is to take the flavors of the movie, and put our silly twist on it.”
And lest you wonder about the holiday connection, Hallman pointed out that “the play and the movie open up with the lighting of a Christmas tree.”
This is the second production in Mirrorbox Theatre’s new permanent home in northwest Cedar Rapids. The black box-style space affords a flexibility that Hallman is putting to good use in “Batman Returns Returns.”
“One of the things that as a company we really aim for, is to think about different ways to stage a piece, and different ways to set up the experience,” he said. “This one is unlike anything we've ever done. It was it was very much inspired by the idea that especially with a drag queen Catwoman, we needed to have a catwalk — a runway.
“So when people come and experience the show, they'll see an elevated runway that the audience is positioned around, and I think that's gonna be very, very fun.”
With about 60 lighting instruments, they can cast a cool glow over the show, as well.
“We’re really fortunate that we had an incredible amount of support for the capital campaign, which meant that we could outfit the theater in a way that lets us achieve a lot, so we have lots of lighting,” he said.
“There are a lot of things that we like to kind of go raw and minimalist on, but you can achieve so much with lighting, that when we were outfitting the theater, we just wanted to make sure we had plenty of tools there.”
With just enough tools left over to sling around Batman’s waist.
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