Theater Review - Bang! Pow! Zap!

Mr. Four Wheel Drive shares comic book strengths, flaws

Dad’s Garage Theatre worships comic books like some playhouses revere Shakespeare or classic musicals. Superheroes strongly influenced Dad’s two Action Movie plays, while last year’s Weird Comic Book Fantasy deconstructed Archie and the gang.

Dad’s returns to the funny pages with the world premiere of Mr. Four Wheel Drive: The Live-Action Comic Book. Writer/director Scott Warren and co-writer Ryan Dunn satirize the splashy exploits of caped crusaders while showing enormous affection for comic book storytelling. The production’s fondness for comics makes Mr. Four Wheel Drive a lot of fun, yet keeps the material from transforming to a fully satisfying stage play.

Jeffrey Zwartjes’ set displays blown-up panels that evoke the kinetic work of Marvel Comics’ legendary illustrator Jack Kirby, as well as painter Roy Lichtenstein’s comic book homages. A cosmic observer called the Peeper (riffing on the Watcher from The Fantastic Four) narrates the show, and Dan Triandiflou delivers his portentous lines with camped-out hilarity.

The Peeper recounts how reclusive brainiac Professor Hawkstein Amadeus (Dolph Amick) discovered on his doorstep a baby wrapped in a “Wade Ford” T-shirt. Naming the baby after his swaddling clothes, the professor learns that the infant has powers of flight and super-strength, especially after drinking gasoline.

Wade Ford grows up sequestered from the outside world, and John Benzinger amusingly plays him with the earnestness of a 30-year-old teenager. Wade and the professor build a weather machine hoping to end world starvation, unaware of the sinister plans of the Izan Lither Corp. Darkflap (Tim Stoltenberg), the company’s goose-stepping goon, takes the device, kidnaps the professor and blows up their lab.

Wade escapes and ends up in a middle-of-nowhere gas station run by ol’ Garth (Triandiflou) and his lovely daughter Cloe (Julie Dansby), who have unknown connections to Wade’s infancy. Wade resolves to use his powers to fight evil and, borrowing one of Garth’s shirts, calls himself “Mr. Four Wheel Drive.” But can America’s gas-powered crime-stopper foil the Izan Lither’s nefarious plan?

Mr. Four Wheel Drive stalls in its first act, and exposition proves to be the hero’s Kryptonite. Comic books can retell origin stories in a single page, not 30 minutes, and some of their traditions — the kneeling hero crying “NOOO!” to the heavens — have long been exhausted as sources of parody.

Instead, the production’s physical effects, such as shadow puppet silhouettes and robotic gizmos, consistently prove imaginative. The show could use more such frills, like Action Movie’s musical interludes or additional live-action versions of comic book styles, like word balloons or sound effects.

The show takes off with its fight scenes — choreographed fisticuffs assisted by stagehands never disappoint. Ford takes on assassins like Stoltenberg’s man-beast the Hunter or Amick’s crotch-knocking Ballseye. Amick never adds much color or pizzazz to his roles, but Stoltenberg and Matt Myers make humorous henchmen. As the Hunter, Stoltenberg licks the stage, kills furry animals and rolls on their bodies like a dog.

The play’s second act at times resorts to cheap ethnic and gender stereotyping for laughs. But Mr. Four Wheel Drive finds a politically incorrect highlight when Wade takes on the jet fighters of the “Mexican Royal Air Force,” tying missiles into knots like balloon animals, accompanied by music from the Top Gun soundtrack.

Overlong and unnecessarily wholesome, Mr. Four Wheel Drive could use a bit more velocity, variety and va-va-voom. To cast Dansby in a superhero show and keep her concealed in overalls and ninja suits seems a missed opportunity, although her red jumpsuit does evoke Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, another wallow in shallow genres. The play features many super moments, but they don’t quite add up to a fantastic Four.