On Friday evening, Spouse and I saw a live performance of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. It was very cool, and the staging gave me more to think about. Spoilers below the fold!

This production was by Landless Theatre Co. at the DC Arts Center, in a very small “black-box” theater, with an audience of maybe 40 people or so. I was impressed with how well they staged it, including some clever minimalist scenery/props. They made good use of the space, so that the audience became part of the setting at times, including the final scene. It was nice that the setting was small enough for the actors to do without microphones – and they filled the space, especially Charles Johnson, who really did a fantastic job carrying the production.

A narrow banner-style video projection screen was used, but it managed to be a bonus, rather than an over-reliance on technology. There were two “Commentary” sections intercalataed between the three acts. Is this just something that Landless does? There were a couple of clever bits stuck in there, but it went on about three times as long as it needed to, and while I appreciated the self-mocking humor and breaking the fourth wall, it started to feel like a not-so-clever production of Capitol Steps rather than the coherent musical I had signed up to see. Thankfully, when they returned us to our regularly scheduled programming, it was worth it.

The final moment of the musical is in many ways the most interesting. In the penultimate scene, the love interest dies in a way that is a proximate result of Captain Hammer’s actions but is ultimately credited to (or blamed on) Dr. Horrible. The eerie final song, with its haunting chorus of “Everything you ever…..” starts up, and a long montage shows Dr. Horrible taking on his new status as a full member of the Evil League of Evil, moving through a party of evildoers and henchmen, now respected and feared, but he seems detached. As he prepares to enter the inner sanctum of the ELE, he dons a red smock and black gloves, in place of his previous all-white outfit, and lowers his goggles, masking his face. In the last moment, as the door swings shut on the inner sanctum, his voice sings “and I won’t feel…” and the video cuts back to Billy, the “human” alter-ego before he became Dr. Horrible, without goggles or smock or weapons, who sings, “…a thing,” with a look of utter hopelessness on his face.

In the theater production, this transition took much less time. Dr. Horrible ripped off his gloves to try to comfort the love interest as she died, and then tore off his white smock and dropped it over her, covering her face. But the real kicker was that after his disastrous screwup, Captain Hammer had also ripped off the black gloves that he had worn all through the show and dropped them on the ground nearby. After shedding his whites, Dr. Horrible picked up Captain Hammer’s black gloves, and once he was in the red smock, he pulled on those very gloves.

When we first saw it, Spouse asked me if the final moment meant that everything before that had been a hallucination or all in Billy’s (Dr. Horrible’s) imagination. I said that I didn’t think so, that I thought rather it indicated the way Billy, the good, feeling, loving person, was now in some sense trapped inside his own created persona, trapped there by the grief and guilt and numbness of the final disaster. That disaster robbed his ultimate triumph of all meaning and value, so he felt no achievement, either, and was left hollow, suppressing his former “real” persona out of inability to cope, stuck inside his creation, which now he found he didn’t necessarily like or want to be.

But the taking-the-black-gloves in the theater staging really drove home for me how much the situation meant Dr. Horrible had inadvertently taken on Captain Hammer’s characteristics, the very characteristics Dr. Horrible saw himself as fighting against.

I was inescapably reminded of some of the libertarian arguments I oppose politically, and how some of my opposition turns on consequences – intended or not – that I see as unethical and unacceptable. Personal responsibility and independence sound great in theory, but when it’s your lung transplant, or worse, a family member’s, that can’t be afforded, it starts to look a lot different. I’m reminded of examples like this story of how a woman who thought she would never make the decision to terminate a pregnancy found herself needing and wanting an abortion.

While nerving himself up to try to kill Captain Hammer, just before the catastrophe, Dr. Horrible describes Captain Hammer’s admirers as “sheeple,” a common libertarian epithet for those not like them, for people who eschew rabid independence in favor of participating in society. Afterwards, he sings: “You think your world’s benign, and justice has a voice, and we all have a choice…but now your world is mine, and I am fine…” I am left thinking that what he means by “now your world is mine” is not just that he is now in a position of power but rather that the actual world, with its injustices and inequalities and terrible choices, has come to claim him. When faced with the unintended and unforeseen consequences, his previous arguments ring hollow, a simplistic and heartless position that he now has forcibly made his own, and as a result, he empties himself.

Act II: The Diabetes Belt is for Superheroes! and Act III: Paging Nurse Empathy will explore a related theme in terms of health care in the US today.

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