A confession: The new BareStage production, “Bat Boy: The Musical,” is not a biotheatric about Batman’s childhood. It is literally about a kid who is half human, half bat. With ears. And fangs.
Or is it?
In an interview with The Daily Californian, Teddy Lake, the director of “Bat Boy,” made it clear that she wanted the show to be about something more. A metaphor. A social commentary. This is a taller order than one might think. The script seems to be a strange combination of a B-grade horror movie, a Greek tragedy and a jazzy show-stopper getting put on in a haunted house.
Lake admits that the show is a reach. But what good is art that doesn’t reach for something? In Lake’s opinion, there is no way to justify the amount of effort that goes into a production if it does not mean something.
And “meaning something” may just be what makes this production of “Bat Boy” worth seeing. Under other circumstances, the musical wouldn’t have a lot to recommend it. It seems unlikely that it would ever be a beloved classic performed in high schools across the country. It seems unlikely that “Bat Boy” (had it made it to Broadway), would have been a big musical success.
But what BareStage has created out of “Bat Boy” is engaging, twisted and timely. Audience members will walk away marveling not at the dialogue and the music which have been provided, but rather at what the cast and production team have built themselves.
“The beauty of theater is that you take a text that isn’t necessarily embedded with meaning, or profound on its own, and you make it profound,” said Lake.
And what does making it profound look like? According to Kacey Mayeda, the answer is intensive world building. Mayeda plays Maggie (the mayor) in the ensemble and described an afternoon where the cast members mapped out the entire town. They figured out where the Home Depot was, the cattle farm, the family-owned diner.
The actors have also invested a great deal of time into character development. Speaking to the ensemble is like speaking to people living a transparent double life. They all seem to know where their characters shop, how they get home from work — it would not have been surprising if they had even made up a street address. And this attention to backstory was not always curated under the direction of the production team. Lake described actors who met for lunch outside of rehearsal to psychoanalyze their characters.
The choreography is another of the show’s assets. Many of Lake’s visions for social commentary take on a robust life in the dance numbers. Motifs of religion and Christianity are made explicit in the sign of the cross, which is incorporated into the movements of several numbers in the show. Questions of nature and nurture, man and beast, the animal within — questions that lie at the heart of the text — are at their most evocative and demanding in dance.
Bare Stage/Kacey Mayeda/Courtesy
In one scene, described by the cast as an animal orgy, the dancers (playing forest creatures) roll and writhe around on the ground, caressing each other, snarling, burrowing, thrusting. These are the same performers who, in the scene before, play townspeople going to church.
Joe Ayres, choreographer for “Bat Boy,” admits that sensuousness and sexuality have been a part of the production from the beginning. The opening number finds the performers imploring Bat Boy to hold and touch them, but Bat Boy is not present onstage, and they are left to hold and touch each other. Femme on femme. Masc on masc.
The dancers seem to have fun abandoning the gender binary, putting nontraditionally coupled-bodies in conversation with each other, but there is also an overwhelming sense of grief. They are imploring an absent body.
But who is this absent body — the namesake of the show — the victim, the metaphor, the fangs and the ears, the social commentary? This topic is more contentious than anticipated. In fact, it seems to be the one divisive unit in what is otherwise a tightknit cast, a communicative group, a clear artistic vision. Early on in the show, Meredith Parker, a matriarchal figure played by Josie Clark, gives Bat Boy the name Edgar. One of the central struggles of the story — finding the balance between Bat Boy’s humanity and his animalism — in many ways follows the arc of the characters that use his human name and those who refer to him only as “Bat Boy.”
This conflicted naming has carried over into the cast. It is very evident that there are two camps: those who consciously refer to the protagonist as Edgar and those who do not, who stick with the title, the scripted name, with Bat Boy. What this suggests about the social commentary, about the complexity and the violence of social othering, is hard to say.
“Bat Boy: The Musical” is playing at the Choral Rehearsal Hall on Nov. 10, 11, 12, 17, 18 and 19. Tickets are available at tickets.berkeley.edu.
Contact Blue Fay at [email protected].