WOOSH! ZAP! CRUNCH!
A 1960s comic book fight is happening right on the stage of Fullerton’s Maverick Theater. There’s little actual movement, no costumes, but plenty of people in masks.
‘The Amazing Spider-Man’
Where: Maverick Theater, 110 E. Walnut Ave., Fullerton
When: April 30-May 30. Shows at 8 p.m. Fridays, 7 and 9 p.m. Saturdays, and 4 and 6 p.m. Sundays
Info: (714) 526-7070 or mavericktheater.com
In this moment, actor Paul Zelhart, as well as Foley artists Jon Gaw and Miranda Seighman, are, collectively, Spider-Man. Gaw gently swings a stick past a mic. Seighman slaps a wet rag on the stage and Zelhart gleefully reads the word bubble in a panel from Marvel Comics’ “The Amazing Spider-Man” No. 50. Spidey might be making easy work of a bunch of bad guys, but there are still a few bugs to be worked out during rehearsal.
More than a year ago, Maverick founder and director Brian Newell intended to try something different and run a dramatic reading of a couple of Spider-Man comics, but instead, it’s become seemingly the ideal production to invite an audience back into the building. To maybe take a half-step back to normal for his community theater.
“I came up with this way before there was a COVID,” Newell says. “But a year ago, I was supposed to be opening ‘The Crucible’ and we shut down. We kept rehearsing (virtually) for six months. Finally, it just wasn’t gonna happen. I thought the only one that lends itself to being safe is Spider-Man. People are performing in front of a microphone, they can have a mask on. It’s a perfect thing to move forward with.”
Despite the action on the page, this is all about being careful. All five actors are fully vaccinated, wearing masks for the performance and are carefully seated around the back of the stage, while the two sound effects artists work from a pit in the middle as the comic visuals are projected on a screen above. The seating will be very limited.
“If there were no vaccines? God no,” says Kalinda Gray, the voice actor performing all the female characters, of the possibility of doing a less-safe version of this production.
Fellow cast member Steven Biggs agrees. He points to the theater’s special 2020 reworking of its long-running annual production of “Night of the Living Dead” in October as a sort of hot zone escape experience as proof the Maverick had not only taken extra precautions, but learned how to use them to their advantage.
“The way the Maverick handled ‘Living Dead’ last year was ingenious because it was a way of doing live theater that did feel safe. Everyone was masked. Everyone was behind barriers. Something like this without COVID protocols? I would have said ‘Ah, I think I’m going to wait.’
There’s a difference between moving past somebody in a big open area in a place you’ll be for 15 minutes, and being next to somebody for two hours all breathing the same air.”
Zelhart described the last year as “hibernation.”
“I kind of wonder why more shows like this haven’t popped up in the last year, but at the same time, it’s a very concerned community. We’re the first to close and the last to open. People need to take as much time as they need, but on the other hand, this is great. That live feeling is just something that cannot be replicated. It’s been a long time coming, sitting at home and annoying my roommate.”
Gray was more than ready for the production after using the pandemic to get into voiceover work. From home.
“This last year it really went through the roof because what else could we really do?” she says. “I put together my own little sound booth and everything. I’ve done regional commercials, video games and other stuff.” In February, she did a Netflix series that operated in a tightly controlled bubble. “Even after that, I was still a little freaked out going home. But here feels completely safe. It will be interesting to see if audiences will jump right back into it too.”
Of course, the opportunity to play a superhero nowadays and not have to get in peak form is not lost on Zelhart.
“I’ve been in a bathrobe and fuzzy slippers for a while now, and I can come back and I don’t even have to do a pushup,” he says. “I just gotta sound cool and have fun with it.”
But to get this far, Newell still had to have a few things go the theater’s way. First, his landlords allowed him to pay half rent, and if he eventually couldn’t do that, well, they’d figure it out.
“They told me, ‘We just want you to know this theater will not close.’ Right at that moment, it was a huge, huge relief,” Newell says. Between a couple of grants from the state and the success of 2020’s unique ‘Living Dead’ run, the Maverick is doing OK.
“I don’t think other theaters are that fortunate. I know a lot of my fellow theater owners don’t have that. They owe a lot of back rent,” he says.
Even though she’ll be seated and masked, Gray says it it’s good to be back in the theater.
“I applaud everyone who’s gone online, but there’s nothing like the energy the actors give off that just doesn’t translate through the screen,” she says. “All those idiosyncrasies, all those emotions, all the chemistry. It’s so separated by the screen. There have been things that forced us to adapt to different mediums, but I feel confident the Maverick will be all right. A lot of theaters, with the rents the way they are? No way.”
Biggs is confident too. He’s looking at the big picture.
“Live theater is never going to die. Individual theaters, that’s a different story,” he says. “The idea of going to a live theater, going to see and sharing the air with performers and audiences, that’s a concept that’s never going away. It hasn’t gone away with television, it hasn’t gone away with movies, it hasn’t gone away with video games, it’s here to stay.”
And on Friday at the Maverick, the show will, in fact, go on.
Shawn Price is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.