Better Too Late Than Never

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 fact.

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 fantasy.

About the Author:

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.