“Superheroes are today’s mythology,” said Hazem Fahmy ’17, the writer and director of the stage adaptation of Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke,” premiering Oct. 8 in the ’92 Theater.
“[The story of Batman is] a story that’s known all around the world, a story that’s been adapted countless times, will be adapted countless times, will be written and re-written,” Fahmy said.
Much like an ancient myth, the retelling of superhero stories keep the same general events, but shift in perspective and themes in ways that enrich the characters and shape the viewers’ understanding of the mythical world. In “The Killing Joke,” the cast and crew have contributed to the canon of Batman stories with their own interpretation that is both inventive and engaging, while staying true to the source material.
Written in 1988, “The Killing Joke” is one of the most infamous Batman comics ever released. Dealing with the paralysis of Barbara Gordon, Moore’s story portrays a Batman driven to his limits by his arch-enemy. In a much darker, more introspective tone than most superhero comics, it deals with how Batman and the Joker complement each other, and the idea that they may in fact be two sides of the same coin. It also tells one possible origin story of the Joker, although the accuracy of this origin is ambiguous.
The comic was a huge success, heavily influencing how the characters of Batman and the Joker are written and perceived within comic books and movies. Furthermore, it marked a major turning point for both characters, taking them into darker adult territory via Moore’s trademark literary sensibility. The comic serves as a reinforcement and a subversion of the relationship between Batman and the Joker, a complicating of the traditional hero-villain relationship, far from what most writers at the time were willing to explore. For his iconic portrayal of the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” Heath Ledger used “The Killing Joke” as an important piece of inspiration.
Writing and acting a play based around the Joker, even seven years after “The Dark Knight” was released, means performing for an audience that has likely seen Heath Ledger’s interpretation of the character. Although this may be perceived as an obstacle, Fahmy and the actor playing the Joker, Ben Yap ’18, took inspiration from Ledger’s Joker, as well as other famous portrayals from actors such as Mark Hamill and Jack Nicholson, to develop their own interpretation of the famous clown criminal. Yap moves smoothly around the stage, leering with bright green hair, white skin, and red lips. His voice is light and airy, shifting constantly between comical and menacing. His general demeanor brings to mind a demented version of David Bowie, his lazy, slinking walk masking a terrifying sense of purpose and unpredictability.
In contrast to Yap’s erratic, violent Joker stands the brooding, powerful form of Jordan Tragash ’18’s Batman. The Batman costume is excellent, bringing the dark and physically imposing image to life, but with some unique touches. Instead of a leathery cape, Batman wears a large black coat, which grounds him as a human being instead of just a living cartoon. On his gloves are shiny metal knuckles, implying the viciousness that he holds back by refusing to kill. Tragash emphasizes the doubt and fear that plagues Batman, humanizing the character with a real sense of vulnerability. Although stoic and strong, Batman is still a character motivated by deep personal loss, and struggling against vicious and insane criminals.
A major strength in this adaptation of the Batman story is how it avoids a dull retelling of the Bruce Wayne origin story. The death of Batman’s parents has been told so many times throughout the different comics, films, video games, and other media, that it can be reasonably assumed that most people in the U.S. and many across the world do not need a review to understand the character in every adaptation. By avoiding unnecessary retracing of old narrative steps, Fahmy gives himself the freedom to move into less well-known parts of the mythology.
The biggest change Fahmy makes to the story of “The Killing Joke” is the addition of a plot line about the founder of Arkham Asylum, Amadeus Arkham. The narrative fits the play’s themes of insanity and trauma, and is woven in seamlessly through journal entries given by the Joker to Batman. The chronologically scattered narratives of “The Killing Joke” unfold simultaneously throughout the play, reflecting on each other and fleshing out the world that the characters inhabit.
“The Killing Joke,” as adapted by Fahmy, is a chilling look at the psyches of Batman and the Joker, and a much more personal, emotional work than one might expect from a comic book adaptation. The lines between hero and villain, sane and insane, and good and evil blur as Batman and the Joker chase each other, fight, and sit down for a rare, honest conversation.