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THEATER REVIEW The Invisible Scarlet O'Neil
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2017-09-15

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Playwright: Barbara Lhota, based on the comic strip by Russell Stamm

At: Babes With Blades Theatre, Company at the Factory, 1623 W. Howard St. Tickets: $25. Runs through: Oct. 14

Sorry, Wonder Woman, but your long-lost older sister is back to resume her place in superherstory. Russell Stamm's comic strip focusing on the adventures of a scientist's daughter turned crime-fighter after a laboratory mishap renders her the power of invisibility made its debut on June 3, 1940, in the Chicago Times—a full year before the arrival of an immigrant princess out of Greek myth.

To be sure, Scarlet O'Neil was slow in acclimating to her extraordinary abilities, having no role models to educate her. Indeed, her father, fearing the government commandeering her skills for war weapons ( as it did nuclear fission ), warns her against revealing her "special" capabilities. Little do they suspect that one of his assistants has already been recruited by the Soviet Union to perfect a lipstick permeated with psychotropic dye reducing the wearer to robot-like obedience. Five years later, Scarlet is a cub reporter at Chicago's City Times, where bizarre reports are circulating of women diving into the lake fully clothed. Further complicating matters is a social environment increasingly unsupportive of women in the workplace, forcing Scarlet and her fellow journalists to fight not just for justice, but writing credit as well.

Saving the world from enemy aggression is a stroll through the funny-pages compared to translating print-graphic narrative to live-action performance, making technical effects arguably the real star of this Babes With Blades production. These include the projections of G. Max Maxin IV, whose caption boxes, thought balloons and onomatopoeic inserts compress expository information into mere seconds. Likewise contributing to the wizardry are the smart UV-reactive career-girl suits, tailored by costumer Kimberly G. Morris, that allow us to "see" our discorporeal champion, along with solitary adversaries trading punches and grapples with empty air under the instruction of combat designer Libby Beyreis.

This isn't to slight the human actors—not in a dramatic universe populated by newshounds lifted straight from The Front Page, buffoonish villains like the scheming Evanna Keil and malapropism-spouting Judy Butafuco, a pair of flinty dowagers ( played with scene-stealing aplomb by Lynne Baker ), a movie star-turned-physicist ( Lisa Herceg doing her best Christine Baranski impression ) and a smart little girl with a dog—along with a few inconspicuous males. The results deliver a last taste of frivolous fantasy fun before a weighty fall season.


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