Stage Preview: Playwright with a new work at City Theatre went from 'Spider-man' to 'Muckle Man'

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John Heller, Post-Gazette
When Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa isn't writing plays such as "The Muckle Man," he's writing for comic books.
By Tony Norman
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is having a pop cultural moment. "The Muckle Man," a domestic drama and high seas mystery tale the 34-year-old wrote as a grad student at Yale School of Drama a few years ago, has been revised and updated for its world premiere as the first performance of Pittsburgh City Theatre's "New American Trio" series.

Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette
Tami Dixon, left, is Dora to Robin Walsh's Marina in "The Muckle Man." The mystery-sci-fi-tinged play is set around the deep waters of isolated Conception Bay in Newfoundland.
Click photo for larger image.

'The Muckle Man'

Where: City Theatre, 13th and Bingham streets, South Side.
When: Through Feb. 18. Tues. 7 p.m.; Wed.-Fri. 8 p.m.; Sat. 5:30 and 9 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m.; some exceptions.
Tickets: $15-$45. 412-431-2489.

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Aguirre-Sacasa describes "The Muckle Man" as a play about a family that finds itself caught up in a "folkloric thriller" after relocating to Newfoundland.

"When they get there, a terrible thing happens," he says. "A mysterious stranger washes up on the beach and becomes a catalyst for strange things, some good and some bad."

Aguirre-Sacasa's litany of the play's ingredients includes a giant squid, mythic elements of the sea, the juxtaposition of the natural world with the man-made world and the lingering presence of the supernatural. As to the meaning of the title, you'll have to see the play to find out.

"Tracy [Brigden, the play's director] and I have been talking about doing something for a while," Aguirre-Sacasa says. "She's also drawn to strong narratives and muscular story lines. She loves a good mystery. They've pulled together an amazing cast that can get behind the supernatural and fantastical elements."

For Aguirre-Sacasa and Brigden, the clincher was a reading of the play in Pittsburgh last spring. That's when Aguirre-Sacasa knew it was destined to work on more levels than even he had originally planned.

What began as two chairs in a tiny performance space in New Haven has morphed into a desolate Newfoundland beach house complete with sand, rocks, thunder, lightning and anxiety, thanks to the visionary work of set designer Tony Ferrieri, sound designer Jorge Cousineau and lighting designer Andy Ostrowski.

For the truly obsessive, Aguirre-Sacasa has also created a blog for one of the play's characters that appears on a City-designed Web site for "The Muckle Man" at www.themuckleman.com. It contains 49 links to videos, news stories and random entries that shine a light on the play's themes. Aguirre-Sacasa calls it a "crash course on the hodge-podge that is the Muckle Man."

Aguirre-Sacasa's list of award-winning plays, some with otherworldly or mystery components, includes "Say You Love Satan," "Dark Matter," "The Mystery Plays," "The Velvet Sky," "Based on a Totally True Story" and "Rough Magic." He's currently working on another called "The Cloud Club" and a musical about the Basketball Hall of Fame called "True Fans."

Recently, Aguirre-Sacasa has been the subject of laudatory profiles in The New York Times, the Village Voice and other publications routinely perused by the gatekeepers of the American theater. Last year, it would have been difficult to read theater listings in New York and Washington, D.C., without coming across reviews and starting times of three of his plays.

The American-born son of a prominent Nicaraguan politician has been the recipient of theater fellowships and enviable press at a relatively young age, but the hook that most fascinates people is what Aguirre-Sacasa does when he's not working out the kinks on the set of a new play.

Aguirre-Sacasa's "day job" as it were, is writing comic books. He writes the stories and pens the words Peter Parker, Aunt May and Mary Jane Watson-Parker utter on the pages of "The Sensational Spider-man," one of several titles featuring Marvel Comics' signature character every month.

If you want to know who to praise -- or blame -- for stories exploring why Peter's Aunt May is so protective of him, look no further than Aguirre-Sacasa's recent work on the title. The playwright's very humanistic, compassionate approach to his stage characters echoes on every page of his comic books.

And if you doubt William Shakespeare wouldn't have jumped at an opportunity to work a freelance gig or two between "Taming of the Shrew" and "Two Gentlemen of Verona," then you're discounting the fact that even full-time professional playwrights with multiple productions under their belts have to worry about paying the rent.

Between curtain calls and hassles associated with any theatrical production, writing comics on the side appears to be as noble a job as any and probably 100 times more enjoyable than what most playwrights do to make ends meet.

"I was a playwright before I was a comic-book writer," Aguirre-Sacasa says over coffee several blocks from City Theatre on the South Side. Although he has loved and read comics his entire life, there's no doubt about how he wants to be remembered when he shuffles from this mortal coil: "I want 'playwright' chiseled on my grave [stone]," he says with a laugh.

But Aguirre-Sacasa isn't defensive about living the sort of bifurcated existence that would make the superheroes he writes about proud. By day (more precisely, early in the morning) Aguirre-Sacasa works on comic book scripts, double checks the latest penciled pages by artists assigned to his books and communicates with editors at Marvel when necessary -- sort of the way Clark Kent checks in with Perry White at the Daily Planet or Peter Parker with J. Jonah Jameson at the Daily Bugle.

Before he got the call from Marvel, Aguirre-Sacasa assumed he would have to become a waiter like many other theater majors -- even some, like him, who graduated from Yale. Fortunately, Marvel has made a concerted effort in recent years to recruit writers from other disciplines in an attempt to bring a fresh sense of expression to its iconic characters.

A Marvel representative named Theresa Focarile, who has since left the company, heard about the wealth of comic book references Aguirre-Sacasa embedded in his plays and reached out to him. She invited him to pitch a story arc to Marvel about one of the company's secondary characters, an archer-turned-superhero called Hawkeye. The 16-page pitch Aguirre-Sacasa pulled together wasn't anything Marvel could use, but it showcased the playwright's storytelling chops. In 2003, he was invited to meet with company president Bill Jemas, the architect of Marvel's "Ultimate Universe" line, to pitch a Hulk story.

Like Hawkeye, the Hulk story line didn't work out, but the editors at Marvel were convinced they'd stumbled upon a unique talent. They were ready to make some changes on the creative team of one of the company's most popular books -- the Fantastic Four -- and they believed Aguirre-Sacasa, with his feel for interpersonal dynamics, and soon-to-be-superstar "Civil War" artist Steve McNiven would be a good fit.

But longtime fans of the book and its then-creative team, writer Mark Waid and artist Mike Wieringo, were incensed Marvel would even consider replacing two fan favorites with a newcomer to the comic-book field. Aguirre-Sacasa was surprised too, but he was eager to try his hand on one of Marvel's crown jewels.

Fierce fan opposition to the move forced Marvel to reverse itself. Waid and Wieringo were reinstated as the Fantastic Four's primary creative team a few weeks later. Shortly after that, Jemas left the company.

Meanwhile, the three issues Aguirre-Sacasa and McNiven had already turned in were too gorgeous for Marvel to deep-six. Aguirre-Sacasa and McNiven's darker take on the Fantastic Four was eventually released under the Marvel Knights banner as "4." The horror-tinged story lines reflected the playwright's preoccupation with domestic unease. It became an immediate fan favorite. Its 30-issue run vindicated the company's initial faith in Aguirre-Sacasa. For doing so well, he was given responsibility for a Spider-man title. For a man whose parents couldn't get him out of his Spider-man pajamas when he was a boy, it was as sweet as any award that could be bestowed on him by the Great White Way.

"My father once said, 'Who would have thought that a first-generation kid born in the United States would be working on a worldwide icon?' " Aguirre-Sacasa says, proudly displaying his classic Spider-man watch. Even his cell-phone sports Spidey background wallpaper. "Every so often, I complain about the grind, but then I remind myself that there are a lot of other things I could be doing. None of them would be this much fun."

For those wishing to explore Aguirre-Sacasa's comic book experiences with the man himself, he'll host a free pre-show Q&A 6:30 p.m. Friday called "Stage Plays and Superheroes." Every Tuesday at 5:30 p.m., the City Theatre will host Fanboys@City, a showcase for local comic-book vendors Eide's Entertainment, Phantom of the Attic and New Dimension Comics.

When asked how he was enjoying Pittsburgh, Aguirre-Sacasa is scrupulous about avoiding a Sienna Miller moment. "I like it," the New York resident says. "My criteria for judging a city is simple: Does it have a vital theater community? Pittsburgh does. And, does it have great comic-book stores? On both fronts, Pittsburgh has nothing to worry about."

Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette
"The Muckle Man" featuring Nathan Blew, left, and Robin Walsh, is part of City Theatre's New American Trio.
Click photo for larger image.

Tony Norman can be reached at tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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