Film critic Leonard Maltin coined the term Mumbo-Jumbo Quotient (MJQ) in his capsule review of The Matrix, and it comes in handy as a way to describe art that's so freaking weird that some other element ideally needs to cross into the red zone as well, to balance the weirdness out. Kind of like the Hot/Crazy Scale. (Which is why most people don't like the two Matrix sequels nearly as much -- the novelty of the first film was that other high-scoring element.)
And it's no surprise that playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's The Muckle Man, currently being presented by Nearly Naked Theatre, lends itself to being discussed in such pop-culture terms. Aguirre-Sacasa is an enviably prolific writer who's made most of his living and fame so far from working on Marvel Comics titles, including The Sensational Spider-Man, and as a story editor for HBO's Big Love.
The Muckle Man's script is not interesting or resonant enough on its own to overcome its MJQ -- it has a not-completely-fleshed-out feeling, relying on sensationalism and sentiment to carry the audience from one weird-ass episode to another. But this production steps up to the plate and delivers a theater experience that is definitely worth checking out.
Speaking of fleshed-outness, something inside me says that the presence of a naked young man shouldn't be, in and of itself, part of what makes a show watchable. In this case, although Owen Virgin unclothed is without question a selling point for many audience members (check out where NNT's VIP supporters choose to sit), the show would be pretty fascinating even without Virgin's nudity. On the other hand, you can't ignore it -- and along with the many subtle things nudity contributes to storytelling here, it's comforting, in a way, to see the human body's beauty in a more complex and high-minded setting than the milieux in which we generally get to.
The storyline is built on a straightforward tale of a marriage stressed by the maximum grief and guilt that two parents can experience. While workaholic scientist Addison Clarke approaches success in his search for a live giant squid to study, his artist wife, Marina, has lost her muse and finds, instead, the soggy Arthur Campbell (Virgin) washed up on the shore.
Campbell's not quite human, it's immediately clear, and his supernatural nature and objective are what elevate The Muckle Man beyond melodrama. Virgin shows a range I hadn't yet seen (he gets cast a lot, but generally plays, you know, people), making strong choices about how to seem just a little "off" and sticking to his creepily enigmatic persona with admirable concentration.
The rest of the cast is completely adequate -- it's just hard to get excited about characters to whom the author hasn't given much with which to work. Shelley Jiles, as Marina's sister Dora, provides welcome comic relief, even though it's transparently obvious that that's exactly what her role is there for.
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Eric Beeck's scenic design is cool as all hell. Swaths of fabric suspended from ropes evoke the setting's sailing environment and are teased out to change the configuration of the space, as well as Jeff A. Davis' lighting, as necessary.
Life and death are true mysteries, so maybe The Muckle Man should get a pass for not explaining its partially made-up folkloric mandates and bizarre ending. You'll wind up with lots to discuss afterward, and you'll see great work by theater artists you're sure to see more of in seasons to come.
The Muckle Man is recommended for mature audiences and continues through Saturday, November 28, at the Little Theatre at Phoenix Theatre, 100 East McDowell Road. For tickets, $25, click here or call 602-254-2151.