Performance Review: Into the Mouth of the Wolf

I came in unfamiliar with Circus Automatic.

Jamie DeWolf and Joyce Lee are the alternating storytellers. Although I’m a longtime fan of DeWolf, this happened to be Lee’s day and I’m glad that it was.

The first two performances definitely had the macabre sensibility that I had assumed from the title. Eka Boo Button seemed to rise from the grave to the gallows in what one might call an elegant dance of death. She set what I thought would be the mood very nicely. Next was Inka Siefker and Katie Scarlett in a contortion duet titled “From Behind Our Teeth.” Advertised on the flyers, this was a work of art from top to bottom. It was also the first sign that these performers are all functioning on some peak human levels.

The rest of the show was much more eclectic with the tone and style of the proceeding performances varying drastically. One was an upbeat, Chaplinesque balancing act by Richard Maguire that was both funny and incredible. Another was Katie Scarlett again with a hypnotic feat of aerialism that went from somber to stunning. Near the end of the intermission, Orion Griffiths charmed the pants off the audience and, hilariously, himself.

But every display of contortion, acrobatics and cabaret was done with such panache, I didn’t even care that I occasionally lost sight of the narrative thread. Fortunately Joyce Lee offered a sort of grounding punctuation in between. Her spoken word/anecdotes juxtaposed the action with doses of reality that were whimsical, inspiring and searing.

Into the Mouth of the Wolf engages you with both truth and fantasy. The result is a jaw-dropping show that will make you clap till your hands hurt. Bring friends. Bring a date. See it while you can.

(Review) Marvel’s Luke Cage: A multipurpose, all-American hero’s journey

(MINOR SPOILERS)

You have to give it credit for its ambition. Like the titular hero, the show is busy working multiple jobs. Luke Cage is a thoughtful, modern take on a superhero originally created in response to the Blaxploitation film craze. So on one hand it has a LOT to say about the African American experience. It ruminates on the topic but never gets too heavy-handed or bogged down by it. The show also features some of the most fair depictions of black people in this genre to date. Much of that is owed to showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker. There’s an earnestness to the black identity you just won’t find on the CW.

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Sorry, Iris.

On the other hand, it tries very hard to invoke the Blaxploitation style (or at least a Tarantinoesque, Kill Bill vol 1 interpretation.) The 70s musical cues can be a little obtuse. Sometimes the cuts work, sometimes they don’t. I’m not always sure what’s an homage and what’s just a cliche.

Mike Coulter portrays the character as both reluctant demigod and frustrated intellectual. Cage is acutely self-aware of every role he’s forced into: convict, gladiator/slave, fugitive, hero, freak. You can see how they all chafe against him. That said, he occasionally comes off a little flat. And I do have a hard time with his hazy but convoluted pre-prison origin.

Unlike its Netflix predecessors, Luke Cage’s biggest weakness is its lack of a compelling villain. In fairness, Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin and David Tennant’s Kilgrave are tough acts to follow that outshine most of the MCU movie villains. And even in the comics, Luke Cage has a D-list rogue’s gallery. But Mahershala Ali and Alfre Woodard bring heart and chemistry to cousin duo Cottonmouth and Mariah Dillard. While not exactly larger than life, they make up for their lack of action figure bankability with character complexity. And this is definitely one of Alfre Woodard’s most memorable performances.

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Be glad they didn’t keep it too much like the comics.
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“Black Mariah.” Seriously.

And then there’s Diamondback played by the distractingly Tony Todd-like Erik LaRay Harvey. They spend half the season hyping up this guy and when he debuts, he’s like an over-the-top villain from a 90’s action show. I’m talking Robocop: The Series, Time Trax or The Crow: Stairway to Heaven. Diamondback is the most cartoon-like element of the series. I’m ambivalent about his mcguffin of a super weapon. His connection to the story is a bit implausible for me. Every line of dialogue was a sing-song threat.

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All he needed was a snake-like lisp.

Simone Cook charms and shines as Misty Knight. It wasn’t obvious at first but her character brings an important balance to this world: She an honest, black, human cop. I half expect her to make appearances in all of these shows just like Rosario Dawson.

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I hope she does, bionic arm or not.

And of course Rosario is back as Claire Temple, the healer and confidant to New York’s miscellaneous heroes. And I could tell from the moment we meet Claire’s mother that Dawson wanted in on the show’s ethnic grounding. The night nurse seems to be headed in a more proactive direction. I’m curious what her dynamic will be with the ensemble Defenders next year.

Theo Rossi as Shades gets an honorable mention. An enforcer/consigliere/liaison, Shades is a surprisingly great supporting character. He’s enigmatic, sinister and clear-headed. I assumed he had powers the minute he was onscreen. Shades genuinely seems evolved: more suited for a post-powered/post-superhero criminal world than everyone else around him.

This is another installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe depicting a New York carrying on in the aftermath of alien invasion, the spectacle of the Avengers and an influx of vigilante and/or superpowered characters. As such, watching the previous Marvel movies is not exactly prerequisite but having seen Daredevil and Jessica Jones is a good idea. Of course it’s full of Easter eggs and clever references to both the Luke Cage comics and the MCU.

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It’s like they want to reward you for having sat through Iron Man 2.

Like the shared continuity into which it fits, the show works as long as you don’t focus too hard on the details. Wouldn’t Mariah’s family have been previously scrutinized? Are we going to acknowledge when the Hulk tore through Harlem (or is that shunned like Edward Norton?) What impact did the events of Daredevil season 2 have on organized crime in New York? Exactly how stupid is Tone?

The climax was similar to that of the movie Friday. (I’m still not sure how I feel about that.) There’s far less resolved by the finale than the first seasons of DD and JJ. With The Defenders hot on its heels, Marvel has no time for the modesty of self-containment. The show’s final shot and Cage’s last line of dialogue are almost on-the-nose in expressing their intentions. That said, it was a lot of fun and they definitely have my attention for the next phase.

I give it a solid B.