The desperation for nations worldwide to maintain integrity and compassion, in helping their citizens succeed and thrive, is a plot point that seemingly never goes out of style. Good versus evil, power versus righteousness, it’s all covered daily in media—not to mention it infiltrates the arts through songs, paintings, films, literature, and especially comic books. In fact, heroes utilizing badassery to save the day and overthrow villainous douche nozzles is a formula that launched the uprise of superheroes galore: Fantastic Four, Hulk, X-Men, and Captain America. The main creators—Stan Lee and Jack Kirby—behind such iconic characters are addressed in the biographic play, “King Kirby,” which opens this week at Red Barn Studio Theatre.
Produced by comedy troupe Pineapple-Shaped Lamps, “King Kirby” centers on the legacy of Jack Kirby, from his upbringing in the Jewish ghetto of New York, to being stationed in war in France, to bearing witness to the Senate hearings of the 1950s, to his death in 1994. Along with Stan Lee, Kirby took all of his experiences and transcribed them into illustrative magic that inspired millions of readers worldwide. We spoke with Blake Howard, who is directing the local debut of the play, which runs weekends through April 30.
encore (e): Why did you want to direct this play? Are you a fan of comic books in general or of Kirby?
Blake Howard (BH): I work as a freelance voice-over artist, and one of my projects was working on an audio adaptation of the comic book “Archer & Armstrong” for Valiant Comics. “A&A” was written by Fred Van Lente, who happens to be one of the writers of the book for the play “King Kirby.” While travelling to New York Comic Con, I was able to meet him, and he mentioned he and his wife [Crystal Skillman] had written the show. Having told him of the vibrant theatre community in Wilmington, he suggested I direct a staging of it—so how could I refuse?
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know who Stan Lee was. Even when he was making promotional appearances on commercials for “X-Men: The Animated Series,” I just remember his showmanship and interest in these characters seemed so sincere and magnetic. Superheroes have always been a mainstay in my life—in cartoon forms as a toddler, on up to physical comic books as I came of reading age. It’s a hobby that’s stuck with me. Even my wife is a comic book writer!
e: Oh, yeah—what has she written?
BH: We met when I was in high school, and moved in together shortly after. We worked those typical 9-5 jobs before realizing we would rather pursue our creative dreams. She has written “The Magdelena: Seventh Sacrament,” “Poseidon IX,” “Rick and Morty: Pocket Mortys” and her own created series “The Skeptics,” among others.
e: What are some of the most intriguing parts of the script and of Kirby’s life, in your opinion?
BH: Jack Kirby was a really tough guy. He grew up in a New York street gang and fought in World War II. There are anecdotes about him rolling up his sleeves and heading downstairs to meet a group of Nazi-sympathizer crank callers who were threatening the bullpen of “Captain America” comics. Yet, in spite of all of this, he seemed to allow people to walk all over him, in a professional sense. The play really delves into that in a profound way.
e: How deep does the story go—is it more about his professional life, or does the audience get the private bits of his personal life, too?
BH: The story mainly revolves around the story of his career and reputation as an artist. That being said, his personal life (such as his upbringing and domestic history) are touched upon in the play.
e: Who is your cast and how are they impressing you most?
BH: The majority of my cast are Pineapple-Shaped Lamps veterans, but all of them have some form of comedic background. Their versatility to deliver moments of poignant sincerity while also adding a layer of comedic instinct to their performance really drives the show. Bryan Cournoyer (Jack Kirby), Anthony Corvino (Joe Simon), Phill Antonino (Stan Lee), Emily Gomez (Rosalind Kirby), and the ensemble, Maria Buchanan, Jordan Vogt, Jay Zadeh, and Jamie Davenport make up the cast. Each bring a lot to the table given their backgrounds in both acting and comedy. What surprised me most, especially amongst our ensemble actors, was their ability to make each of their characters interesting individually, even if those characters are only on stage for a minute or so.
e: Are any parts of the show intimidating to direct?
BH: While there are certainly comedic moments within the play, “King Kirby” is a drama. It has a very profound message about the appreciation of one’s idols and how, sometimes, you can never appreciate the impact a person has made on culture until they’re long gone. That being said, none of us were interested in producing a two-hour cavalcade of misery—and so, being able to punctuate and balance those moments of levity with respect the work deserves can be a bit intimidating, in the interest of wanting to keep a consistent tone.
e: What’s your favorite scene?
BH: Toward the latter half of the play, there is a scene focused on Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s vibrant and exciting Marvel Comics plotting session. In directing the scene, I had to make an allusion to one of my favorite scenes in “Amadeus,” where Salieri is assisting in Mozart’s composition. The way Phil Antonino and Bryan Cournoyer pull it off is hilarious, and the introduction of the sweeping symphonic music only adds to it!
e: Tell us about the set and tech stuff, costuming and how it’s bringing the world we will see to life. Will it be a blend of reality and cartoons and/or illustrations, a la Harvey Pekar and “American Splendor”?
BH: For the most part, costumes and props are kept largely realistic. It is a very fast-paced play and moves between days and months and even years at a breakneck pace. As such set pieces are generally very simplistic with the stage remaining somewhat consistent as certain embellishments and set pieces are wheeled in and out, consistently. For our ensemble cast, costume changes can get pretty rapid-fire at times.