The Passage Theatre makes an auspicious debut with its revival of Mickle Maher's deadly difficult 2003 play, a work so doggedly antitheatrical and conceptually absurd (like most of Maher's dizzying scripts) that it seems designed to fail. Twelve dubious superheroes, with names like the Intoxicator, Fragrance Fellow, Memory Lass, and the Untangler, have apparently saved Fathomtown from archnemesis Professor Cannibal (his capture took 400 years) and are now in the midst of mounting a celebratory production of Shakespeare's The Tempest. Trouble is, they're broke (superheroism isn't remunerative), so they're holding a telethon in their secret submarine headquarters, trying, with scant success, to raise funds. And they've holed themselves up beneath Fathomtown's execrably polluted bay for so long that supervillains now run rampant.
The play's myriad elements seem decidedly random at first, and little happens onstage; the audience witnesses nothing but intercut snippets of actors making phone calls. But imperceptibly Maher's imaginative world begins to cohere, the team's true history emerges, and Maher delivers a gorgeous, melancholy saga of everything The Tempest's spirits endured after their play ended.
Director Will Quam rightly takes a nearly musical approach, letting various themes and motifs emerge, submerge, and recur rather than trying to manufacture action where none exists. The 95-minute show has its lulls, but the precise, unhurried cast finds disarming poignancy in the well-orchestrated absurdity. As lead superhero Ariel, Peter Andersen plumbs the depths of a truly lost soul's incalculable sorrow. v