True Believers: Attempting a Tribute to Nerd Culture

photo credit: Vagabond Theatre Group

True Believers by Thom Dunn, Vagabond Theatre Group, The Factory Theatre, 7/12/12-7/21/12,

Reviewed by Gillian Daniels

(Boston, MA) San Diego Comic-Con is less a comic book convention than a blown up Hollywood cousin of the original concept.  I both loved and feared it when I attended last year.  It’s a beautiful, strange mess of a con, bloated with action movie advertisements, cameras from SPIKE and BBCA, and hundred dollar t-shirts.  While still a sort of haven for those obsessed with action figures and trade comics, its proximity to tinsel town has turned it into an exciting, stressful hype machine.

Vagabond Theatre Group’s production, True Believers, does an excellent job in distilling this over-saturation.  YouTube and World of Warcraft are utilized as clever storytelling devices, a creative approach to the multi-media experience of the con.  The stage is decorated in comic book pages freed from their bindings. It has gorgeous potential and feels true to the spirit of the convention in many ways.  Once the action begins, though, certain concepts and characters often feel broadly drawn.

The story pivots on Chad Mailer (Ryan Edlinger), a comic book writer known for a mini-series with an ending he didn’t even write.  He’s a selfish person with few admirable qualities, an egotist struggling to reclaim the critical glory he enjoyed years back.  Storylines that only intersect briefly with his feel more vital and interesting.   Characters like Jeff Marcus’s Calvin Alder or “Avenger,” who’s just looking to tell the story behind his costume once he comes up with one, are much more fun to root for.

True Believers focuses on the entry points of being a geek, things that general audiences would be familiar with, which I feel is a mistake.  Mailer’s editor, Ted Thompson (Michael Avellar) has reasonable fury at his ex-wife for taking his Han-Solo-in-carbonite coffee table. His sadness and anger at his divorce, though, are undercut by cartoonish humor at his expense.

KT Watts (Caitlyn Conley) is also done a disservice.  She’s sharp and sassy, a fun presence on stage, but it’s clear from her first moment that her character’s vulnerabilities will be revealed in a sort of “moment of truth.”  I enjoy the idea of Watts, an artist who has recently won a movie deal for her independent work in a male-dominated industry, but I struggled with her flat writing.

True Believers is at its best during more sincere moments.  Chloe Long (Rachel Katherine Alexander), in nothing but a Princess Leia costume because the airline lost her luggage, is endearing as she describes a sheltered upbringing in Kansas.  Her difficulties tracking down her online boyfriend make her one of the most sympathetic characters in the ensemble.  The up-and-coming comic writer, Box (Jim Remmes), is also enjoyable as an eccentric creator espousing beliefs in comic books and spirituality that sound an awful lot like Alan Moore or Grant Morrison.  His character is exaggerated but honest and a reference to geek culture that isn’t particularly overt.

There’s so much about True Believers I like and so much about it I want to see in other media.  As a writer for a blog called The New England Theatre GEEK, yes, of course there’s a lot of references and ideas I enjoyed.  Right now, though, I think the show needs to be tightened before it hits the stage again.

True Believers is wonderful when it comes to its set design and its handle on the macrocosm of a convention.  The show tends to go for “broad” laughs about Stan Lee and Star Wars, however, when it could stand to stick to more personal, eccentric moments concerning the relationship between fans and fandom.  One such moment is a convention-goer attempting to explain why he thinks the pacemaker he received as a baby makes him a cyborg.  It’s ridiculous but oddly moving.  I think I would have enjoyed myself much more if the show had spent more time exploring this sort of nuance.  It’s like the show feels too apologetic in its nerdy pleasures to explore them sufficiently, a tribute too guilty to embrace its nerd pride.

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