Charleston theatergoers are well-accustomed to kitschy, hipper-than-thou send-ups of America's not-so-glorious pop-culture past. Audiences have delighted in the old nudge-nudge, wink-wink of Reefer Madness, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, and this year's Piccolo Spoleto offering Slammergirls. Camp has become as much of a staple of the theatrical world as backstage bickering and opening-night jitters. But when it comes to The Intergalactic Nemesis, you won't find much camp, despite the pulp origins of this one-of-a-kind radio show-meets-live-action comic book. Writer-director-producer Jason Neulander's Nemesis is a celebration of old-school serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, and modern-day blockbusters like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
"It's very easy for the actors to really ham it up," Neulander says, noting that he asks his team of radio actors to avoid good-laugh hunting, despite the funny accents they have to adopt and the strange circumstances in which the characters are thrust.
For Neulander, the characters — feisty female reporter Molly Sloan, her trusty sidekick Timmy Mendez, and our daring hero Ben Wilcott, a lowly librarian on a mission to save the world — are compelling enough to win over audiences, no camp required. "What I'm interested in, and the reason I've stuck with this project for so many years, is I personally really connect to the main characters," Neulander says. "While they do get a little outrageous — at the top of the show there's a driver and he's got this ridiculous Scottish accent — your main characters — Molly, Timmy, and Ben — are pretty grounded."
While that may be all well and good, somehow we doubt that those Spoletians who've bought a ticket to see both parts of The Intergalactic Nemesis are looking to fall in love with the characters in Book One: Target Earth and Book Two: Robot Planet Rising. They're going to see the two shows for the spectacle of watching a comic book come to life on stage, a feat accomplished thanks to a projection screen showing scenes from the funny book, frame by frame, while on-stage actors speak the dialogue.
"You can do things with a comic book that you can't do with a radio play," Neulander says. "When you are listening to something, events have to happen completely one step at a time. If you happen to have multiple things happening at a time, it just turns to noise. In a comic book, you can do multiple things at the same time pretty easily because your eye moves so quickly." Which means that our Katharine Hepburn-esque reporter Molly can search the dungeons of Castle Kradmoor while our villain Mysterion unveils his dastardly plan outside.
Neulander adds, "In the live stage show, what we do by adding back in the element of sound is bringing in the best of all worlds. The experience really becomes almost cinematic."
Neulander notes that paying attention to both the voice actors and the video screen takes some getting used to, but the payoff is well worth it. "People go in with a set of expectations of 'This sounds like a lot of fun, we're going to see comic book artwork on the screen, we're going to see sound effects being performed, and there's maybe going to be this virtuoso voice performance,' and then they find themselves surprised to actually get caught up in the storytelling, and that after about 10 minutes or so of watching the show and trying to make a decision about what they're going to watch, their brain figures out how to watch the show, and they find themselves getting completely immersed in the experience."
Interestingly, The Intergalactic Nemesis wasn't originally designed to be a live-action comic. The first version, written by the Salvage Vanguard Theater's Ray Colgan, Lisa D'Amour, Julia Edwards, and Jessica Reisman, was a radio-drama spoof, and it ran episode after episode for weeks at a time. Later, with Neulander at the helm, The Intergalactic Nemesis evolved into a more concrete show and then a sequel. National tours followed. Eventually, Neulander came up with the idea to produce a comic book — you can buy the issues online — and combine those elements with the radio-drama.
And this novel approach led to a surprising creative freedom. After all, there are things that are best presented in comic book form — spaceships, aliens, fist fights — that you can't pull off in a radio drama with much success, and there are things that a radio drama can do that a comic can't — and that's make a lot of noise. As with all present-day radio dramas, one of the key draws of The Intergalactic Nemesis is watching the crew create all the sound effects that drive the show.
"My personal favorites are some of the simplest," he says. "In a scene that takes place in a train station, for the train sound, we use a toy train whistle and a box of Kraft mac and cheese that gets shaken just so to make the sound of a train on the tracks."
With The Intergalactic Nemesis, Neulander believes that sound and image combine to give this drama a unique charm. "The way in which the projected artwork matches up with the radio play format and comes together sort of transcends the individual media and sort of becomes its own art form, and I'm a little bit hesitant to say that," Neulander says. "I definitely think that with Intergalactic, the whole experience is much greater than the sum of the parts."