‘Invisible Scarlet’ torn from the comics pages of Chicago newspapers

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In the colorful history of comics, there have been many female super heroines. The most famous, of course, is Wonder Woman who is currently experiencing a reboot via Gal Gadot in director Patty Jenkins blockbuster movie.

‘The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil’
When: Sept. 2-Oct. 14
Where: Babes With Blades Theatre at Factory Theater, 1623 W. Howard
Tickets: $20-$25
Info: babeswithblades.org

But Wonder Woman certainly wasn’t the first in this long line of comic heroines. That would be Scarlet O’Neil, and she is getting a nod thanks to Babes With Blades Theatre and its world premiere staging of Barbara Lhota’s “The Invisible Scarlet O’Neil.”

The action-filled play is based on Russell Stamm’s comic strip, which featured the first super-powered female character. And Scarlet has a Chicago connection.

The comic strip originated in the Chicago Times beginning in 1940 and later, after the paper merged with the Chicago Sun in 1948, in the Chicago Sun-Times. Stamm had been an assistant to Chester Gould (creator of Dick Tracy) at the Chicago Tribune for five years before deciding to step out and create his own comic strip.

Babes With Blades commissioned Lhota to write the play, which opens the company’s 20th anniversary season. Lhota began by digging into the comic strips and was instantly intrigued by Scarlet. She also talked to Stamm’s son, also named Russell, who gave her background on the character’s creation.

“After talking with Russell, I wanted to focus on the 1940s time period after the war,” Lhota says. “I wanted to play with the idea of Scarlet’s invisibility and also the idea of women being invisible again after the ‘Rosie the Riveter’ era when these strong women who worked in industry and flew planes were suddenly relegated back to more traditional roles.”

“Invisible Scarlet O’Neil” ran in the comics pages of the Sun-Times, shown here in 1949. |SUN-TIMES FILE

Lhota used the comic strip as a stepping-off point for her original story. The play begins in 1942 when, after a mishap in her scientist father’s lab, Scarlet discovers she’s invisible, a power she promises her father she’ll never use. (She becomes invisible by touching a spot on her wrist.) Then the story fast-forwards to 1947: Her father is dead and her promise to him is shaken when Scarlet, now working for the City Times newspaper, attempts to outwit those who want to destroy her father’s reputation.

But Scarlet both in the comic strip and the new play is not your usual super hero. “She’s clumsy and a little bit goofy and smart and sassy and really sweet,” Lhota says. “The tone of the comic strip is very lighthearted.”

Portraying Scarlet is Chloe Baldwin, who also is the assistant violence designer, a position she was hired for before she was asked to audition for the lead role.

“This has been such an adventure,” Baldwin says. “Barb really captures the style of the ‘40s while being very honest and real about relationships and grief and growing up.”

Through the rehearsal process, Baldwin is finding a lot of common ground with Scarlet.

“Scarlet and I are similar in that we both come across very optimistic and yet under the surface we can be dealing with grief and deeper problems. I want to show Scarlet’s different layers but not in a heavy handed way.”

Lhota and Babes With Blades both have a love of the 1940s time period. The company staged two of her earlier works — “180 Degree Rule” and “The Double” — each set during that time. For “Scarlet O’Neil, Lohta also found inspiration in classic 1940s movies such as “His Girl Friday.”

“It’s a very film noir time period and the acting is a bit heightened which I think transfers very well to theater,” says the play’s director Leigh Barrett. “The dialogue is usually very witty and snappy and punchy. The language just crackles. And Barb has a really strong sensibility of that language and style.”

The entire creative team (Babes is know for its stage combat skills) has been playing around with how the invisibility factor will manifest itself on stage. They’ve come up with different versions of the effect and how it will be used in the fight scenes. “It was an interesting puzzle to work out,” Baldwin says.

As to the fate of the Scarlet O’Neil comic strip, Stamm would face pressure to pull back on her power and introduce a love interest. By the mid-‘50s, a character named Stainless Steel was added to the strip and proved to be popular. Soon after, the strip was renamed for this new character and Scarlet simply dropped out of sight.

“In creating Scarlet, I think Russell Stamm was trying to do something adventurous and also appealing and new with women characters,” Lhota says. “And I think now there are a lot of women craving stories where we get to see powerful women. It’s the perfect time to bring Scarlet back. Plus it’s a fun piece of Chicago history.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.

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