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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Superman’s Final Flight?

Milwaukee Rep stages David Bar Katz’s ‘The History of Invulnerability’

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“I’ve never related to comics but I love the concept of selective memory,” Director Mark Clements said of The History Invulnerability, a fantasy biography by playwright David Bar Katz about the writer Jerry Siegel and his comic book creation Superman. The production will close the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s remarkable current season, its fourth under Clements’ artistic direction. The fast-paced story takes place in Siegel’s mind in the moments before death. His memories and the notion of an invincible superhero collide and explode.

This is the play’s third production since its premiere in 2010 at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and its first large-scale realization. The script—a sometimes funny, sometimes enormously wrenching collage of biography, comic books and 20th-century history—calls for an immensely theatrical blending of live action and multimedia effects. With the help of a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rep will use state-of-the-art technology to project archival material and original imagery onto scenery, floors, furniture, props and actors.

“We started talking about the play the first year I was here,” Clements said, “with a view to producing it the second year. But we didn’t have the technical know-how. We invested in a bit of gear in the second season. We used it in our production of Lombardi, then more extensively last year with Mountaintop. Now we’re taking it to a groundbreaking level in the city, I believe.”

Still, the play’s the thing. “This is about using projections in a way that underpins but doesn’t dwarf the story, doesn’t take away from your interest in the central characters,” Clements said. “Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman and sold it for $130 and lived a tortured existence for the rest of their lives.”

Like many of the creators of comic book superheroes, Siegel and Shuster were Jews. They gave their super creations nebbish-y alter egos. Their villains were realistic bad guys—wife-beaters or, in Superman’s case, a lynch mob.

Along with the nebbish-y Siegel, Superman is the play’s central character. “You see a side of him you don’t see in the movies,” Clements said. “He isn’t boring. He has a brutally honest edge. He pushes Jerry to tell the truth: that he wanted fame, recognition, honor for his talent.”

To playwright Katz, Superman is the ultimate obstacle to the biggest truth for Jerry. What Jerry really wants, Katz said, is to be saved. Katz has Siegel face truth of a different magnitude: that his Man of Steel, born in 1939, is an unconscious response to an evil even Superman can’t vanquish, Nazism. The script includes scenes in the death camps in which a Jewish boy reads Superman and hopes.

“Some people have misread the play,” said the mild-mannered Katz, “as equating Jerry Siegel’s story with the Holocaust. Rather, the murder of Jews is something that powered Siegel’s obsession with Superman. My idea was to write a gradual stripping away of the Superman fantasy until we are left with bare truth.”

The play was born when Katz took his oldest son to the New York Comic Con in 2009. The event was “insane, humungous, hundreds of faces and everywhere you look are superhero displays,” Katz said. “Then in a corner we see Jerry Robinson, also Jewish, creator of The Joker, co-creator of Batman. And no one was even noticing him. All this stuff was almost a direct result of his work. People were paying ridiculous amounts of money for stuff that wouldn’t even be there but for him. And no one noticed him.”

Katz wrote the play quickly, an outpouring. “The finished script is still 80% that first draft,” he said. “I wanted to avoid the over-intellectualizing or rationalizing that gets in the way of the unconscious. This is so about Jerry’s unconscious.”

Though a member of New York’s well-regarded LAByrinth Theater, Katz is a fan of regional theatre. “Life in New York,” he said, “is essentially not getting stuff done. I can’t think of anything greater than being an artistic director at a regional theater, being able to do new work, being aware of serving a community on a continual basis while also developing an audience for more challenging work, stuff that’s too edgy even for off-Broadway.”

Superman will be played by JJ Phillips of Glendale who began his career at First Stage and works now with Chicago’s Steppenwolf and Lookingglass Theatres. Bob Amaral, a Broadway and television actor, will make his Rep debut as Jerry Siegel. Kelley Faulkner, Angela Iannone, Michael Kroeker, Josh Landay, Gerard Neugent, and Greg Wood play multiple roles from Lois Lane to Benjamin who dies at Auschwitz.

The History of Invulnerability runs April 8-May 4, at the Milwaukee Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse Theater, 108 E. Wells St. For tickets, call 414-224-9490 or visit milwaukeerep.com.