Seeing the characters of Broadsword onstage in a South Florida theater is a little weird. Not that they are inappropriate subjects for a play. It's just that nobody had an interest in treating them as such before Marco Ramirez came along. Because anyone coming of age in the '00s has heretofore been considered too young and too basically baffling to be treated by playwrights as more than sociological curiosities.
Marco Ramirez — a South Floridian and recent Juilliard grad — is a millennial himself, and so are his characters, no matter their apparent ages. Like the YouTubing, Wikipediaing, anime-loving, comics-reading, videogame-playing demographic he reps, Ramirez has little time for artificial divisions between high and low culture or between "serious" art and entertainment. It's all in the mix, every artifact and genre democratized by free and easy access. Maria Callas and Modest Mouse, Stephen Sondheim and Miley Cyrus — they're all two clicks from anywhere. The tradeoff is that they are stripped of their intended contexts. Their new context, and perhaps their final one, is one another.
For Ramirez, everything is a possible inspiration, and anything can be borrowed, stolen, or modified to fit his vision. His plays belong to no tradition, and like Quentin Tarantino, he works straight-faced within genres that others would enter only ironically. Pulpy supernatural thrillers, sci-fi, comic-book action-heroism — he treats them all with utter respect and crafts them all with glee.
Broadsword, a pulpy supernatural thriller, is Ramirez's best play, and it's a shame that its world premiere at the Arsht Center is only two weeks long. Given a chance, Broadsword is the kind of show that could develop a cult following among young hipsters. The word would spread: Come to the Arsht! Grab a beer! Watch a heavy-metal band reunite to save one of its members — from hell!
That's Broadsword's premise. The band, Broadsword, was four young dudes with no prospects and some chops, trying to play and party their way out of a shithole called Rahway, New Jersey. There had been signs they were going places but not enough. Broadsword broke up when the singer went solo; after that, the bassist and drummer gave up on music and got boring, blue-collar day jobs. Only lead guitarist Richie (David Hemphill) stayed put, becoming a virtual shut-in in the basement where the boys used to practice, playing his instrument, traveling deeper and deeper into obscure musicology texts, seeking out lost and arcane chord combinations and tonal structures. Some of these, he believed, were magic.
Then he disappeared. No warning, no note; just his amplifier humming disconsolately in the cellar. His friends and family planned a memorial service. It is there that the band finds itself, together for the first time in almost two decades. There's bad blood among them, and they'd barely talk if it weren't for the arrival of former Vatican musicologist Dr. Thorne (Ken Clement), who tells them a fantaestic story of what became of their former bandmate — and what they must do to get him back.
The band members — singer Tony (Erik Fabregat), bassist Victor (Eli Peck), and drummer (Paul Tei, who also directs) — seem freed by the substantial space afforded them at the Arsht (where they are backed up by Sean McClelland's lavish, technically marvelous set). Ken Clement plays the musicologist grandly, in a comic Wagnerian mode, earning laughs never anticipated in the script. And Gregg Weiner, playing the uncannily frightening manager who lured Tony away from the band 16 years ago, benefits immeasurably from the presence of moody backlighting. In his opening monologue, he calls Tony "a dragon in human skin," but Weiner is the only dragon in this show.
Weiner probably gets the show's best lines, but he's not its most interesting character. Its most interesting character is the band. Its members, like Ramirez's heroes past, fear neither death nor indigence nor infidelity nor ennui. They fear growing up, or not growing up, depending on the day. There is never any doubt that they can squash whatever demons their music may summon (just as, in Ramirez's Mr. Beast, there is no doubt that heroes can kill a werewolf or in Macon City that a superhero can best a supervillain). The only question is whether they are man enough to play the music at all.
"Man enough." So far, Ramirez's work is about boys snatching manhood from the pizza-box jungle of perpetual adolescence, and his females tend to be static — wiser than the boys, tougher, and a lot less complex. When Marco pens the rare leaden line, it's usually destined for an actress' mouth. In Broadsword, that mouth belongs to the lovely Sofia Citarella, who makes the most of it. Her evident difficulties, however, make me realize that Ramirez is a bit of a geek and probably speaks most clearly to that segment of our generation whose first crushes were on Laura Croft or Sora. (Puzzled? Ask a grandchild!) It's for those of us with the world at our fingertips and no idea what to do with it.