NY Review: 'Swell'

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Photo Source: Hunter Canning
Comics and graphic novels have taken the stage and screen by storm—see “Persepolis,” “Watchmen,” and of course “Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark”—but the slew of adaptations face some inevitable challenges and thus are poised to disappoint. There’s the unavoidable tension that comes with catering to two audiences: the fans of the original pen-and-ink experience versus the newcomers and their potential disengagement with the source material. But more difficult is simply translating the power of the comic page, with its idiosyncratic storytelling abilities, into a narrative limited by time and space.

Graphic and performance artist Juliacks has made a career out of navigating this divide. “Swell,” presented as part of the Women Center Stage 2012 Festival, is an adaptation of her serialized mini-comic of the same name, which was eventually collected into a graphic novel. The production is the latest in a long line of performance interpretations of the comic that she has been creating since 2007.

In its original printed incarnation, “Swell” would seem to resist theatrical interpretation even more than a traditional comic does. Telling the tale of Emmeline Grouse, whose sister dies while she is away at college, it captivatingly explores the irrationality of loss and the nature of grief. With primitivist black-and-white drawings, Juliacks’ pages are dense with visual information; the panels run together, with word and image forming a textured emotional collage that seems inextricably tied to the medium itself.

To re-create this immersive world in performance, the show is presented in the round, with the audience entering through a spiraling passageway lined with undulating strips of cloth. When you finally cross into the playing space, you feel like you’ve come upon something hidden, a secret world or a child’s fort. From the outset, installation artist Taryn Humphrey and set designer Damon Pelletier presage integral elements of Juliacks’ narrative, underscoring the importance of these private spaces where identity is formed.

The aesthetics and atmosphere of the comic strip are brilliantly woven through the entire production in this way, from the innovative projections of Juliacks’ drawings to the ingenious paper wigs by Sam Creely. Director Kathleen Amshoff evokes the dreamlike quality of Emmeline’s mourning by juxtaposing quick periods of frantic action with longer, languorous moments of introspection and private ritual.

With so much careful consideration clearly put into this adaptation of “Swell,” it’s all the more surprising that while the comic is packed with emotional power, the production becomes just the opposite: a cerebral look at grief. Juliacks often eschews naturalistic dialogue; her characters narrate their actions or voice their internal monologues. When sprawling across a page as part of a visual patchwork, these streams of consciousness take on a poignant force. But onstage the words are pure thought, divorced from their emotional foundations. The cast reinforce this feeling with understated performances, with the exception of Emma Galvin as Emmeline, who occasionally breaks through the sleepwalkers’ world to deliver a moment of such charge that the stage sizzles.

Does this substantial difference diminish the adaptation? On the contrary, the ability to capture multiple feelings in its different incarnations—the emotional, the intellectual—is one of the qualities that makes “Swell” worth exploring. Perhaps it’s why Juliacks continues to tinker with the work, to discover what new surprises might emerge from her creation.

Presented by Culture Project as part of Women Center Stage 2012 Festival at the Living Theatre, 21 Clinton St., NYC. March 15–April 6. Thu. and Fri., 7:30 p.m. (212) 352-3101, (866) 811-4111, www.theatermania.com, or www.womenscenterstage.org.