As theaters begin to reopen around the Bay Area after long COVID closures, two notable shows have deep roots in what’s often called geek culture.
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley returns to the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts with “Lizard Boy,” Justin Huertas’ indie folk-rock musical inspired heavily by superhero comics. Meanwhile, City Lights Theater of San Jose has just reopened with its long-deferred world premiere of “Coded,” Kirsten Brandt’s play about women video game developers weathering online harassment, threats and abuse.
“I grew up with comic book superheroes and Saturday morning cartoons, watching X-Men and Spider-Man and Power Rangers,” says “Lizard Boy” writer-composer-star Huertas. “I didn’t grow up a very religious person, but this kind of was that for me. I would just watch hero stories and learn how to be a better human. And then as I grew up, I started thinking about the fact that I didn’t really have Filipino people, brown people, people of color to look up to that were heroes. The heroes that I had on television growing up that loved and looked up to were all white.”
Reuniting the original cast, director and design team from its 2015 world premiere at Seattle Rep, “Lizard Boy” on Oct. 9 opens TheatreWorks’ much-delayed 51st season and its return to in-person theater. (The show is in previews Oct. 6-8, and will also be available for online streaming.)
Involving a mythology-infused hero’s journey and a dating app, “Lizard Boy” was Huertas’ first musical, which started as a commission from Seattle Rep’s late artistic director, Jerry Manning.
“When he found out that I was an actor who played cello, he wanted me to write myself a show. And there was no requirement for what that show should be,” Huertas recalls. “I thought, I want to cast myself as a superhero, because I’ve never had that before. It felt like an arbitrary decision at the time to give him a green lizard skin and make that part of his trauma and struggle. I truly didn’t know until maybe like a year into the process that I was writing about being brown in white spaces.”
City Lights was only in the second preview of its world premiere of Kirsten Brandt’s play “Coded” when all theaters had to shut down in March of last year, and now it’s “Coded” that finally reopened the theater in mid-September. With a playful structure that blurs the lines between virtual reality and the real world, the dark comedy is largely inspired by the “Gamergate” campaign of online harassment against women video game developers, gamers and media critics that began in 2014.
When City Lights executive artistic director Lisa Mallette approached her about commissioning a play, Brandt says, “My daughter at the time was doing a lot of gaming and said she wanted to go into game design. And she’d actually taken a class where she was the only girl in the class. And so I started doing some investigation into what kind of career path that is, and lo and behold, all of this stuff about what it means to be a woman in computer gaming came up. I had followed Gamergate a little bit, but I didn’t quite realize the extent.”
The process of writing the play involved a lot of research into game design, gaming and tech industry culture and harassment that women in the industry have received.
“I talked to a bunch of women designers. The first question one of them said to me was, ‘Are you afraid of doing this? I mean, aren’t you afraid of the backlash you’re going to get for writing a play about this?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, no. Are you saying you think I might get doxed or something?’ And they’re like, ‘You never know.’ But I haven’t personally gotten any nastygrams sent my way, and I’m thankful for that.”
As the play points out, making more room at the table doesn’t mean pushing anybody aside.
There is plenty of room for everybody,” Brandt says. “No one is trying to take anything away from anybody. I wrote a new line: ‘You can have your ‘Grand Theft Auto’ and all the bouncing boobies you want. We just want games for us, too.’”
Contact Sam Hurwitt at [email protected], and follow him at Twitter.com/shurwitt.
By Justin Huertas, presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
When: Oct. 6-31
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.
Tickets: $30-$100 ($25 for streaming); 650-463-1960, www.theatreworks.org
By Kirsten Brandt, presented by City Lights Theater Company
Through: Oct. 17
Where: City Lights Theater, 529 S. Second St., San Jose
Tickets: $25-$52; 408-295-4200, www.cltc.org