In the days when all television was live, it was hard to imagine
a more frustrating job than that of the newspaper television critic
whose role was to tell readers each day about a performance they no
longer had an opportunity to see. If the critic liked something,
his recommendation carried no weight because it was too late to act
on the recommendation. Or if she hated something, it was too late
for viewers to avoid it. Either way, the critic was powerless to
affect the viewing public. There were no reruns because nothing was
stored, except for archival purposes. The only record was the
kinescope, a fuzzy, grainy, highly unsatisfactory film made by
actually photographing the monitor. Kines were of little
entertainment or news value (at the time there was a discernible
difference between the two) but they were useful for performers to
give to their agents and their mothers.
Now I feel something of the plight of those old TV commentators,
for I am about to describe a graphic treat that it is too late for
others to enjoy, at least for the time being. The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island, based on
drawings by Ben
Katchor, is a comic opera that has completed its off-Broadway
run and will not be seen again—unless it is revived sometime,
somewhere. Well, stranger things have happened. But few stranger
things than the show itself have happened in the graphic arts for
some time, which is why it is worth reporting here after the
The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island, written and designed by Ben
Katchor, as staged at the Vineyard Theatre.
The book and libretto come directly from the drawings, an
expansion of a strip Katchor did 10 years ago for Metropolis
magazine. The theme, derived from Katchor's phone falling off the
desk one day and breaking open, is simple. In an age in which all
small appliances are made of plastic and fueled by a microchip,
weight (and therefore worth) must be artificially added to them by
the insertion of lead slugs. The plot is based on the situation of
the forced laborers who export these slugs from beautiful Kayrol
Island, where they subsist on a meager diet, washed down with
nasty, dirty and addictive Kayrol Kola.
1930s Big Ben alarm clock.
As it happens, the plot's design roots go back to the earliest
days of industrial design. In the 1930s, the pioneering designer
Henry Dreyfuss was retained to redesign the Big Ben alarm clock. An
assiduous student of consumer behavior, Dreyfuss noticed that
before buying a clock, customers lifted it to test its heft. This
couldn't have told them any more about the clock's accuracy than
kicking a car's tires tells you about its performance, but it was
better than nothing. Back at the drawing board, Dreyfuss specified
embedding a weight in the base of the clock, which resulted, the
story goes, in soaring Big Ben sales.
Katchor's drawings depict an urban environment that is unlike
any we have ever encountered. Or is it? For, on the other hand,
they show a quirky verisimilitude that lets us recognize that
environment as the city we live in, whoever we are and wherever we
live. The entire storyline of Slug Bearers is contained in
his projected and animated drawings, which are the set, scrim,
props, and arguably the protagonist. Not that the cast was anything
less than brilliant, but the set in this case really was their
context, not their backdrop. Ben Brantley, theater critic for
The New York Times, called the show “an answered prayer for
anyone who has dreamed of living inside a graphic novel.”
Slug Bearers illustration by Ben Katchor.
Frankly, I have never dreamed of that, but now having done it I
can testify that it is an exhilarating experience. What I have
dreamed of is the integration of graphic arts into theater in a way
that goes beyond conventional background. Sunday in the Park
with George deals with the complex back-story of a famous
painting, so it is reasonable to expect it to display special
attention to the visual. The current revival does, with a series of
projections moving from blank canvas to charcoal sketches to
Seurat's pointillist painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island
of La Grande Jatte, and from there to contemporary computer
images. The projections are the work of Timothy Bird and the
Knifedge Creative Network.
Slug Bearers takes an off-balance step in the same
direction. More than a step, really—it is a tumble down a well of
Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design
and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of
I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt
and is the recipient of the
2011 AIGA Medal.
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