Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Atomic Comic, a Human Cartoon Fantasia
Z Space
Review by Patrick Thomas

Also see Patrick's recent reviews of Out of Character and A Chorus Line

Colin H. Johnson, Sara Toby Moore,
and DeMarcello Funes

Photo by Kenna Lindsay
In the program for Atomic Comic, a Human Cartoon Fantasia, creator and lead performer Sara Toby Moore defines "human cartoon fantasia" as a "new form of theatre, one that merges emotional truth with physical comedy and performed at cartoon dimensions." Atomic Comic is indeed unlike anything I've ever seen: it's part circus, part mime, part tragic memory play, and part jukebox musical. In its world premiere at Z Space, it's clear the show is not yet greater than the sum of those parts, but the core story of love and loss is compelling enough that I'd be curious to see where writer Moore and director Sean Owens take the work in future productions.

It takes a while for Atomic Comic to find its way. An opening segment involving marshmallows, a testy chef, his bumbling assistant, and a ravenous interloper is not quite funny enough, and seems oddly disconnected from what follows. Although the marshmallows come back into play during one of the musical numbers, I fail to see how it relates to the primary narrative thread.

In that thread, the clown Toby (Sara Toby Moore) is set upon by one real-life tragedy after another: the death of their beloved, "exquisite" father, followed by a cancer diagnosis and the exit of a once beloved wife who can't handle the stress and leaves Toby to deal with it all on their own. This all takes place on a lovely set by Sarah Phykitt, consisting mostly of stacks of luggage, which seem to represent both the journey Toby must make and the baggage (of the emotional variety) they carry with them.

Toby travels with two other clowns, Rando (DeMarcello Funes) and Hammy Sammy (Colin H. Johnson), who handle some of the most physical comedy and are generally appealing and fun to watch. Funes seems to be able to pop out his eyes (a la Marty Feldman) in looks of wonder, shock, or desire as each scene requires. Despite his burly build, he exudes a gentleness that contrasts nicely with Hammy Sammy's more authoritarian mien. Johnson is blessed with a handsome face and impish eyes of a romantic lead, which makes his playing a fool a bit jarring–but mostly in a good way, defying expectations.

As Toby says more than once during Atomic Comic, "real clowns get their red noses from crying and drinking." This trio (assisted in other scenes by Sharon Shao as Daphne) take their clowning seriously, claiming inspiration from traditional European clowning. Which, they say, is "so old no one remembers it." (Note: the clowns are not in typical clown attire: only red noses, and those only occasionally.)

Prodding the clowns along their journey through Toby's loss of their father, the onset of breast cancer, and divorce are a selection of video roll-ins of a pair of pseudo-agents, Willem and Shelly (George Maguire and Maureen McVerry), who regularly berate the trio (in the most profane and cruel ways possible) for their lack of skill, humor, and general appeal. Maguire takes the lead here, and his well-seasoned face erupts with vicious sneers and glares that elicited some of the biggest laughs of the night at the performance I attended. His facial clowning is the equal of any pratfall or pie throw. In later scenes, Sharon Gless (she of "Cagney & Lacey" fame) appears on video as Toby's sassy therapist, dispensing advice most psychologists would shudder to utter, e.g., suggesting Toby go have some violent, anonymous sex.

In the midst of the clowning, Atomic Comic is at its best when it tugs at the heart. There's a gorgeous scene when Toby is on a ladder, staring down at their father dying in a hospital bed, singing Billy Joel's "Summer, Highland Falls," which, without a single lyric change, perfectly express Toby's mind state: "Now we are forced to recognize our inhumanity/ the reason co-exists with our insanity/ and though we choose between reality and madness/ it's either sadness of euphoria." And Toby's intensely rubbery face is put to excellent use when they lip-synch the "Queen of the Night" aria from Mozart's The Magic Flute.

The company closes with a lovely version of Talking Heads' "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)": "Home, is where I want to be/ but I guess I'm already there/ I come home, she lifted up her wings/ I guess that this must be the place." It's a lovely wrap-up that has me hopeful Sara Toby Moore and their collaborators will continue to shape Atomic Comic into a more successful form of human cartoon fantasia.

Atomic Comic runs through July 8, 2023, at Z Space, 450 Florida Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Tickets: $20-$55 For tickets and information, please visit