Batman Returns

P uns and punches flying below it, the bat signal shone over a New Haven skyline last night. Granted, it was a skyline made of foam or something, small enough to fit into Yale Cabaret’s subterranean black box theater.

Yesterday through Saturday (as of this writing, only the 11 p.m. Saturday performance has any tickets left), the theater’s become as much a sound stage as a stage-stage, mock-producing a lost episode of the 1960s TV series Batman. Fifty years after its first episode aired, the series—starring Adam West as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Burt Ward as clean-cracking sidekick Dick Grayson/Robin—is still the champ of camp in American TV annals. Syndicated all these years, its legend is multigenerational: legions of channel-flipping kids born in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, ’00s have stumbled across its technicolor BOFF!s and KAPOW!s.

Unlike the 120 episodes various generations have seen on TV, Yale Cabaret’s Episode #121: Catfight! is of but also above the source material. At once celebrating and lampooning the show’s quirky hallmarks, wife-and-husband writers Tori Keenan-Zelt and Steven Koernig have constructed a hilarious, biting commentary on the show’s, but really society’s, antiquated cultural constructs, particularly regarding gender and sexuality.

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Koernig points to “Surf’s Up, Joker’s Under,” a lovably absurd episode from the show’s third season, as the catalyst for Catfight!. “For some reason,” he says, laughing as he describes the episode, “Joker decides that a good way to defeat Batman and take over Gotham is by winning a surf competition… It’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard.” But it was also “an amazing episode,” he says, and got him thinking that “maybe we could write our own.” Keenan-Zelt, meanwhile, noticed that Batman’s final season coincided with a famous feminist protest of the 1968 Miss America Pageant. Between the objectification of women central to beauty pageants and the “unintentional misogyny” that often crops up in Batman—its writers and showrunners were “products of their time,” Koernig forgivingly notes, though he’s not so convinced our time is much-progressed—the couple saw a comedic and sociopolitical vein ripe for the tapping.

Catfight!’s female characters—at least, when not under the spell of Catwoman’s nefarious “feminine frequency felining device”—have the firmest grip on reality. Barbara Gordon (alter-ego: Batgirl, played by Brontë England-Nelson) is an incisive, if also young and impressionable, student; Juliana Canfield’s Catwoman is an effective conniver, self-aware and in control. Most of the men, on the other hand, from Batman to Robin to Commissioner Gordon to Catwoman’s plodding henchmen Mi and Yow, are like leaves in the wind, buffeted about, oblivious as to why they behave or think or feel as they do. When the needs of the plot compel Dick Grayson (Dylan Frederick) to dress up as Barbara Gordon and Barbara Gordon to dress up as Robin, for instance, Batman all of a sudden respects Gordon’s opinions and dismisses Grayson’s. Batman knows not why he does this; for him there’s just an impulse, and an unexamined drive to comply with it. He also has no idea that he harbors romantic feelings for Robin, despite telltale lingering eye and body contact.

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We could find such thoughtless characters rather unlikable. Instead, we find ourselves just liking the actors all the more. They inhabit their characters’ flaws so completely that there’s rarely any doubt that the flaws themselves are the joke, and that we’re all in on it together. As Bruce Wayne/Batman, Andrew Burnap’s line delivery, capturing the essence of Adam West’s version but with an extra helping of blue-blooded self-assurance, is a constant source of amusement. And an unexpectedly heartfelt poetry recitation and interpretive dance by the otherwise thuggish Mi and Yow (Sebastian Arboleda and Jonathan Higginbotham, respectively) was brilliantly staged, its humor escalating well enough to stack the audience’s laughter atop itself.

“Comedy’s about making you laugh at something, but good comedy makes you think about why you laughed,” Koernig says, and by that measure among many others, Catfight! is a real KAPOW!

Episode #121: Catfight!
presented by Yale Cabaret
217 Park St, New Haven (map)
Tonight and tomorrow at 8 and 11pm
(203) 432-1566
www.yalecabaret.org/…

Written by Dan Mims. Photographed by Christopher Thompson.

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Dan has worked for a couple of major media companies, but he likes Daily Nutmeg best. As DN’s editor, he writes, photographs, edits and otherwise shepherds ideas into fully realized feature stories, helped in no small part by a small team of dedicated contributors.

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