Someone in a major American metropolis has been murdering post-coital couples, injecting them with a poisonous serum as they lie entwined in each other’s arms, leaving police baffled and the city’s lovers scared out of their minds.

Fortunately, as any comic book fan knows, serial murders like these are the reason super heroes exist, or in the case of Adam Szymkowicz’s World Premiere comedy-fantasy Hearts Like Fists, super heroines.

Director Jaime Robledo, fresh from his Sacred Fools smashes Watson and Stoneface, now pops over to Theatre Of NOTE to stage Szymkowicz’s latest, a collaboration that leads to one of this summer’s most exciting thrill ride-like treats.

 The super villain responsible for all this metropolis mayhem is a man known only as Dr. X (Keith Allan), driven insane by rejection and bound and determined to make sure that lovers everywhere feel his pain.

Luckily for big city dwellers in love, a trio of crime-fighting beauties every bit as powerful as they are curvaceous are on Dr. X’s trail, brunettes Sally (Jennifer Lee Weaver) and Jazmin (Alina Phelan) and redhead Nina (Alysha Brady).

 Since clearly the trio need a blonde in their midst, who better than Lisa (Lauren Dobbins Webb) to join their ranks, a statuesque flaxen-haired stunner so va-va-va-voomish that aroused construction workers fall to their deaths whenever she passes by.

Adding to Lisa’s particular appeal is her mastery of the martial arts, as Dr. X discovers when the twosome get into a tussle and the blonde beauty manages to karate chop and kick her way to safety, though not before getting scratched by the evil doctor’s hypodermic, a superficial wound to be sure, but one risky enough that she decides to seek medical treatment.

Handsome Peter (Rick Steadman) is the MD examining Lisa, and sooner than you can say “at first sight,” sparks ignite between the good-looking twosome, sparks that threaten to fizzle since neither is willing to take the leap of faith that love requires, Lisa because she doubts her ability to give her heart to another, and Peter because with a heart as weak from heartbreak as his own is, falling in love again just might prove fatal.

Peter’s one hope is in getting the artificial heart he’s been working on to start beating in order to become the first successful artificial heart transplant recipient, and thereby bear up to the slings and arrows of outrageous romantic fortune (and one of Dr. X’s death injections), as well as insure that millions upon millions of others will receive the same protection.

 Lisa, meanwhile, has been recruited by Sally, Jazmin, and Nina in their quest to rid the world of Dr. X and his ilk, and now dons her own identity-concealing superhero mask, turning the trio into a fearful, ferocious foursome and making it entirely possible that Dr. X’s days may finally be numbered.

Did I mention that Sally, Jazmin, and Nina have day jobs as nurses in Peter’s hospital, and that they work alongside a nurse (Grace Eboigbe) who is not only hopelessly in love with the elsewhere smitten Dr. P but also happens to be the heartbreaker who drove Dr. X to undertake his killing spree?

In Hearts Like Fists, Szymkowicz has written a play that is both campy and clever, but also full of heart and hope, another notch on the prolific young playwright’s belt. Still, much of the magic of what happens on the matchbook Theatre Of NOTE stage comes from the inspired work of its director and his crackerjack team of designers.

Were Hearts Like Fists a Hollywood summer blockbuster (which it well could be), heaven only knows how many hundreds of millions of dollars it might cost to make.

 Fortunately, in the world of 99-Seat Plan theater, directorial genius and inventive design can bring the budget in at probably less than one ten-thousandth of what it cost to bring The Amazing Spiderman or The Dark Knight Rises to the screen without losing an iota of excitement.

DeAnne Millais’s oh-so-ingenious set design features a row of sliding panels manipulated by a pair of “Ninjas” (Pierce Baird and Dan Wingard) doing virtually nonstop work moving on-and-offstage set pieces as large as a hospital bed and as small as a bedside lamp, in what may well be the tech-heaviest intimate theater play of the year.

The upstage wall hides several scrims, which when lit from behind become various big city locales, including at one point a restaurant ladies’ room whose many functions we hear rather than see, thanks to sound designer Mark McClain Wilson’s running water, toilet flushes, and hand dryer whoosh. McClain’s sensational design also gives us the “bams,” “pows” and “whams” any comic book fight sequence requires, in addition to backing up the action and suspense with Michael Teoli’s evocative original musical score. Matt Richter’s vivid, imaginative lighting design adds to the excitement as does Brian Griego’s nifty prop design, with Takashi Morimoto’s costumes completing the design package, particular snaps going to Sally, Jazmin, and Nina’s color-coordinated super hero garb.

Those who’ve seen the masterpiece of imagination that is Robledo’s Watson won’t be surprised that the director comes up with some brilliant visuals this time around as well, the most memorable of which is a horizontal love-making scene played vertically—to uproarious effect.

The entire cast hit just the right notes, somewhere between comic-book hyperreality and real-life authenticity. There’s a terrific dry humor to Brady, Phelan, and Weaver’s three irresistible superheroes. Steadman and Webb play their pair of star-crossed lovers with sweetness, sincerity, and just enough of a wink. Eboigbe may well be the play’s biggest laugh-getter with her delicious take on the proverbial loser in love. Allan’s hilariously twisted Dr. X gives classic comic book villains like The Joker, Lex Luthor, and Magneto a run for their money. Ninjas Baird and Wingard speak not a line, but have more business to keep in mind than most leading players, and execute it with hardly a hitch.

As for those fight sequences, expertly choreographed by Andrew Amani, they are as high-energy and precision as they come, and executed to comic book perfection by good girls and bad guy alike.

Hearts Like Fists is produced for NOTE by Mandi Moss and Jason Moyer. Weaver is associate producer. Michael Robert Holmes is dramaturg. Hearts Like Fists is stage managed by Bebe Herrera.

Having only seen one of Szymkowicz’s baker’s dozen plays, the first-date two-hander Nerve, I was particularly impressed by how delightfully different this latest one is. The gifted young playwright could not have picked a better team to give Hearts Like Fists its World Premiere than Robledo and his topnotch team of L.A.’s best.

Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga, Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
August 5, 2012
Photos: Mandi Moss

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