Weekly World News’ favorite cover boy is alive and well in Summer Stock Austin’s energetic show
by Hannah Kenah
What is it about an outsider that reveals the worst in people? How can humanity, a species noteworthy for its ingenuity and sense of adventure, be so afraid of that which is foreign?
We like to read about strange things – two-headed babies and Elvis aliens – but were some to appear in our own hometown or, worse, from between our own legs, we’d prefer the freaks dead. Bat Boy: The Musical draws from the tales of the tabloid character as chronicled in the Weekly World News since 1992. (Bat Boy found in a cave in West Virginia! Bat Boy endorses Al Gore! Bat Boy stalked by Mitt Romney!) Bat Boy went away when Weekly World News folded in 2007, but the creature is alive and well in Summer Stock Austin’s current production.
The show kicks off energetically with three young spelunkers descending from the light grid, headlamps swirling. They are the Taylor kids of Hope Falls, W.Va., who discover a half-human, half-bat creature while exploring a cave. The only things batlike about this Bat Boy are his pointy ears and fanged teeth, but actor Jacob Trussell gives his creature a dynamic physical presence. With curling toes and ground-dwelling posture, he seems strange enough to be fearsome.
Bat Boy: The Musical follows Hope Falls’ struggle to deal with the freak. The first half is simple, with the Taylors dragging the creature to town, where it is adopted by town veterinarian Dr. Parker and joyfully “civilized” by his wife, Meredith. (BBC language tapes give him a regal English accent, and by intermission he is lecturing on Darwin and Copernicus.) The second half grows intricate and surreal, as if writers Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming couldn’t decide which way to spin Bat Boy’s yarn. Dr. Parker goes all Mr. Hyde, seething and plotting. His daughter, Shelley, and Bat Boy run away to the forest and, like a drug trip from Hair, find themselves dressed as Adam and Eve, serenaded by a glittery faun and surrounded by a menagerie of animals (puppets imaginatively conceived by Connor Hopkins). There is a hasty explanation of the parents’ complex backstory, complete with a counterintuitively hilarious slow-motion rape, then it wraps up in a hard-to-swallow Hamlet-esque ending.
Hopkins’ gorgeous set maximizes the potential of the Mary Moody Northen Theatre. Each corner comes alive with a church frame or bat cave or slaughterhouse (the site of the Hope Falls citizens’ panicky town hall meetings). Director David Valdes’ staging is ripe with physical humor, and his ensemble bursts onto stage with great humor and energy. Laurie Urban’s funny and enchanting Meredith Parker and Trussell’s Bat Boy provide a strong backbone for the production. David Gallagher achieves a perfect mixture of evil genius and comedic timing as the deranged Dr. Parker. Rounding out the dysfunctional family is Corley Pillsbury’s Shelley. In a brilliant piece of gender-blind and race-blind casting, Josh Mayes plays a gospel mama to the hick Taylor kids. Aaron Moten places his Sheriff Reynolds firmly in the long line of goofy, nervous, and incompetent lawmen, squeaking commands such as: “Go get your guns and your dogs. We’re going to do this right and orderly.”
Most stories about an outsider end with messages imploring tolerance. But Bat Boy: The Musical ends with the suggestion that outsiders may not be as outside as we like to think. “Don’t deny the beast inside,” it sings; Bat Boy is part of who we are. Maybe that’s why we keep coming back for more ridiculous, over-the-top, and implausible tales like the ones offered up by Weekly World News. A similar fondness for cheeseball schtick renders Summer Stock Austin’s Bat Boy both entertaining and apropos.