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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The True Origins of Superman

The Rep’s spectacular ‘History of Invulnerability’

Milwaukee Rep Superman
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The Milwaukee Repertory Theater closes its 60th season with David Bar Katz’ brilliant play, The History of Invulnerability. The story is conceived as the deathbed reflections of Superman’s creator Jerry Siegel, a gifted writer who, with illustrator Joe Shuster created Superman, sold all rights for a mere $130 and then spent 40 years trying to regain due recognition and remuneration. Bar Katz’ script is elegant and multi-layered, successful in binding disparate worlds into a coherent narrative.

Production values could leap tall buildings in Mark Clements’ immersive visual and audio environment. Large screens cover the back wall and form the “pulp” onto which immense graphic images are projected, courtesy of Video Projection Designer Jared Mezzocchi. Sound Designer Lindsay Jones fills the Quadracci Powerhouse with epic music and chilling effects, effectively summoning everything from the horrors of Auschwitz to the destruction of Krypton.

As Siegel, Bob Amaral courageously undertakes the journey of a man tortured by regret and denial and finally redeemed by facing the truth. JJ Phillips plays the Man of Steel hounding his artistic “father” for answers about his true origins. Suave and tellingly arrogant, Phillips’ Superman embodies both the comic non-humanity of a superhero with breakaway pants and Siegel’s conscience pushing him to face the alienation and anti-Semitism that prompted his greatest creation.

Other standout performances come from the three actors who bring to life the concentration camps Siegel longed to liberate; they form the emotional and philosophical crux of the piece. John Brotherhood’s Joel is an eternally optimistic adolescent reading Siegel’s comics in the shadow of the gas chambers. Saul (Greg Wood) embodies the deep tradition of faith in the Jewish community; God’s avenging Nephilim are his only potential liberators. Finally, Benjamin (Josh Landay) is the realist who believes the Jews must save themselves through violent uprising. Landay’s subtly modulated performance raises a question fundamental to all wars: If we can conceive of and fight against tyranny and murder, are we capable also of perpetrating them?

This is a play about facing demons—both personal and societal—but it is not without levity and tremendous entertainment value. The spectacular production is well worth seeing.

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