FORT WORTH -- In his nearly four decades at Hip Pocket Theatre, Johnny Simons has adapted classic literature, pulp fiction, kooky science screeds and comic books and strips. His love for Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan books (he has adapted several) would seem to lead naturally to his taking on the jungle man's female equivalent, Sheena: Queen of the Jungle.
But his staging of several stories from Golden Age Sheena, created by Will Eisner and Jerry Iger, is more an argument for the comic book as cultural icon than it is about the woman who communicates with animals and saves her man from giant crabs, killer warthogs and soldier ants.
We get four stories featuring our heroine, Sheena (Kristen Walker), and her man-in-distress, Bob (Damek Salazar). In between these skits, the ensemble acts out vintage advertisements in Jumbo Comics, and in one telling segment, members read letters to the editor. Teenage girl readers love having a woman hero, of course, but one teen boy calls it "corny." (Given Sheena's skimpy leopard bikini, it's no wonder he "reads" it nonetheless.)
With his statement, we get to the crux of Simons' staging: Corny is in the eye of the beholder. People who don't read comic books would pooh-pooh any comic book as cornball, what with the short dialogue, broad characters and the heroes' knack for saving the day no matter how far-fetched the situation. (In Sheena, maybe the most far-fetched aspect is not the killer spiders or octopus, but the fact that they put tigers in the African jungle; tigers are only found on the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere in Asia.)
Simons is out to prove that not only are strong female characters represented in comic world, but that they also have an equal right to appear corny to the rest of the world, which will never "get" the attraction of comic books. In turning the comic book into theater, he seems to be saying that characters such as Tom Sawyer and Captain Ahab aren't the only fictional characters that deserve to come alive onstage.
His cast here (Simons also directs) gets it, playing it freakishly close to earnest, as musician Michael H. Price, looking like safari Hemingway, plays a melodrama piano score in the center of the stage. Walker, her bosom respecting the legacy of Sheenas before her (costumes by Diane Simons), is fabulous and fierce.
The most inspired bit comes when they play one scene entirely with dolls of their characters and various creatures, puppeteered with their bare hands.
It ain't Masterpiece Theatre, but it's not meant to be. In Johnny Simons' world, jungle queens deserve the same respect as Shakespeare's kings.