You will search the annals of folklore in vain for the Muckle Man, the mysterious title character of a play by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. The name might be familiar from the clever, months-long City Theatre marketing campaign for its latest production, which plastered the title, unexplained, all over town. While The Muckle Man begins as a domestic drama about a marine biologist and his family coping with the death of a child, the figure who ruptures Aguirre-Sacasa's narrative by walking naked from the ocean onto the Newfoundland shore is, as a character, real enough. But mythically speaking, he's purely the playwright's brainchild.
Still, by heralding further weirdness -- including a captured giant squid's inexplicable acquisition of mammalian traits -- the Muckle Man character takes the play into darker emotional seas. Like the ghost of Hamlet's father, the Muckle Man (who says his proper name is "Arthur Campbell") and the squid are both reflections of the family's inner turmoil and the catalysts for exposing it.
The paranormal is a familiar device for Aguirre-Sacasa, at 34 a rising playwright with multiple big-city productions to his credit. Other plays include Say You Love Satan, a comedy about a young man whose new boyfriend might be the son of Lucifer. Another drama, Dark Matter, revolves around the possibility of alien abduction.
Aguirre-Sacasa might also be America's only professional playwright who's a major writer of superhero comic books. Working for Marvel Comics, he currently scripts "Sensational Spider-Man" and the X-Men spin-off "Angel." His resume also includes "Fantastic Four" and "Nightcrawler."
Muckle Man opens in previews Thu., Jan. 25, in a production starring James Lloyd Reynolds, Brett Mack and Robin Walsh, with Nathan Blew in the title role. Aguirre-Sacasa, who's boyish, thoughtful and mannerly, was in Pittsburgh for rehearsals starting Jan. 12. He links Muckle Man to the Ring movies, and even digital-age urban legends about e-mails from ghosts: It's a story about bizarre phenomena that cause us to rethink our technologically determined world by knocking it awry.
Aguirre-Sacasa, son of a prominent Nicaraguan diplomat, grew up mostly in Washington, D.C. Here, City Theatre will trade on his pop-culture credentials with special programming aimed at younger (and non-theatergoing) audiences. On Jan. 26, there's Stageplays and Superheroes, a free, pre-show Q&A with the playwright. And at 5:30 p.m. before each of the play's three Tuesday performances, the theater hosts Fanboys@City, a pre-curtain showcase for local comics vendors.
But while Muckle Man references Jaws, Aquaman and the old Saturday-morning show Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, it ultimately harks to wellsprings more nightmarish: drowned sailors who can't quite die; the terrifying mysteries of the sea.
Earlier versions of Muckle Man were staged starting in 2001, while Aguirre-Sacasa was still attending the Yale School of Drama. Multiple revisions followed; the newest incarnation has been taking shape in rehearsals under director (and City Theatre artistic director) Tracy Brigden. The revisions, says the playwright, have generally meant "more magic realism, less Night of the Living Dead."
"Muckle" is a nonsense coinage Aguirre-Sacasa picked for its ocean-floor phonetics (though he later learned that "muckle" is also Scottish dialect for "a great amount or extent"). Yet as with the North Sea myth of the selkies that the play also cites, the fantasy elements echo human struggles -- in this case, how a family in crisis copes with tragedy.
Indeed, Muckle Man concludes not without ambiguity, but also with a certain sense of fate. That's something Celtic folk tales might have prepared us for, even if Sigmund and the Sea Monsters didn't. It's "[t]he idea that you are at the mercy of forces beyond your understanding," says Aguirre-Sacasa. "Once something digs its hooks into you, it will pull you where it will pull you."
The Muckle Man Thu., Jan. 25-Feb. 18. City Theatre, 13th and Bingham streets, South Side. $15-45. 412-431-CITY or www.CityTheatreCompany.org