Every comic book featuring Batman has a little note reading “Batman created by Bob Kane”. That’s only partially true. Writer Bill Finger was integral to Batman’s development, as was Jerry Robinson in developing the supporting cast. The new play Fathers Of The Dark Knight shows not only the fictional origins of Batman and the denizens of Gotham city, but also the epic real-life story of the men who created these characters.
The story is cleverly divided into scenes set in the real world, and scenes that take place in fictional Gotham City. These scenes parallel each other in theme. As a young Bob Kane (Played by Kenneth Thornton) and a young Bill Finger (Ezekiel Jackson) struggle to flesh out their newly created superhero, an entirely separate cast acts out Batman’s origin story upstage.
Each time Kane, Finger and Robinson create a new character in the Batman mythos, a scene featuring that character plays out upstage, so that audiences learn about Batman’s history on two levels.
The production values are extremely high – when Commissioner Gordon (Russell Mahrt) summons Batman (Zach Karem) for a rooftop meeting, he does so with a seven-foot tall Bat Signal that really lights up. When a certain character is tied to a missile as part of The Joker’s mad scheme, there is a ten foot tall missile right on stage. Along the way audiences also visit stately Wayne Manor, The Ridler’s torture chamber and, of course, the Bat Cave itself complete with a row of stalactites hanging from the ceiling.
The costumes are likewise exceptional. This is the classic Batman, dressed in flexible tights, not the high-tech armor of the recent film incarnations. A true representation of a man dressed to strike terror in the hearts of superstitious cowardly criminals. All of the heroes and villains are dressed in well-planned costumes that reflect their classic comic book origins. Robin is a brightly-clad sidekick in yellow satin, The Penguin is an ostentatious fat man in formal wear, not the bird-man monster of recent cartoons. Catwoman uses the 90’s version of her costume instead of the cat-head outfit from her early appearances, which is an excellent choice given the many silly outfits that designers put her in over the decades.
Playwright / Director Roberto Williams is filled with reverence for the character, and the men who created him. There is little use of bat gadgets, the show focuses on Batman’s detective skills and martial arts training, rather than the gizmos that later came to define the character.
This reverence for Batman also means that Fathers Of The Dark Knight is crammed with lots of unnecessary characters, dialog and scenes. Running over two and a half hours long, Williams’ script captures as much as possible of Gotham City, but that means the classic characters have to share stage time with some of the lesser members of the Bat family. Robin transitions to Nightwing, Batgirl joins the team, and Harley Quinn shows up, even though these characters didn’t appear until the 60’s, 80’s and 90’s.
There are also numerous sequences added in for flavor that seem superfluous. The Penguin’s nightclub has a sultry chanteuse who sings a musical number, there is a great deal of time spent on multimedia newscasts to provide exposition, and much of Batman’s origin is already well-known to audiences anyway. The cast is mostly made up of youngsters, occasionally too young for their roles, and not hardened enough to play villains, mooks, and aging comic book creators.
Unfortunately, much of the dialog will be unheard by audiences due to the poor acoustics in the venue. The ambient music drowned out the dialog onstage, and the multimedia videos had sound that was too dim to hear. The large stage has several layers of curtains and (In this performance) there were repeated problems with actors and props ending up in the wrong spot at the end of the scene. This resulted in unintentionally comical moments where dead bodies and unconscious goon had to scurry under the curtain at the end of a dramatic fight.
Fathers Of The Dark Knight is the rare project that will appeal hardcore fans, and novices. It’s a history lesson, and a superheroic adventure at the same time. It’s primary weakness is excessive ambition. The rampant tech problems, complicated staging, inexperienced cast and poor choice of venue will make it a destination for comic enthusiasts rather than theater fans with a casual interest in comic book history.
Fathers Of The Dark Knight plays through July 12th in the Bronx New York City. More information is available at www.fathersofthedarkknight.com.