Superheroes are a huge pop-culture phenomenon nowadays, not to mention a multimillion dollar industry. But gods and heroes with magical powers have always been popular, doubtless since skin-clad storytellers entertained rapt audiences around tribal fires. The History of Invulnerability, David Bar Katz’s 2010 play, currently in production at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, details how America’s most iconic comic book hero originated as a response to the Nazi party abroad and prejudice at home. Playwright Katz has a keen sense for dramatic situations, and this play brings together three: Superman’s larger-than-life adventures, of course, but also the compelling story of how he was created by writer Jerry Siegel and illustrator Joe Shuster; how they were bilked out of millions by unscrupulous publishers. On top of these compelling stories, Katz interweaves a fictional account of an historic revolt by Jewish prisoners at the Auschwitz–Birkenau Auschwitz concentration camp. Whoa—does that last one raise the stakes a bit? It does, and it creates a stylistic fracture that the play never really resolves.
The premise makes sense; Siegel and Shuster’s first draft was an evil mastermind called “The Super-Man,” created as a direct response to the Nazi appropriation of Nietzsche’s philosophy. The play doesn’t go there, but there’s plenty of Judaic resonance in the Superman legend: he’s an exile, like the Israelites; he was set adrift in a baby-sized spacecraft, like Moses in the basket; his Kryptonian name, Kal-el, contains the Hebrew suffix meaning “of God,” and his mission is distinctly messianic. The idea that two nebbishy kids from Cincinnati create a muscular savior who gets the girl is a classic adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasy, and it resonated completely with Depression-racked America.
Under the direction of Mark Clements, the production is never less than engaging and visually delightful. Video projections on large, irregularly-shaped screens. together with bright costumes, bring to life the colorful characters of the comic book world, both on and off the page. We see the destruction of Krypton; Superman defeating villains (including punching Hitler, from a comic that appeared in Look magazine); bending steel, lifting mountains, and so on. We see some of Shuster’s primitive early artwork, as well as newspaper headlines and archival photos, and we meet some of the famous or notorious figures involved, including gangster “Lucky” Luciano (who funded the original comic after the New York DA scotched his prostitution ring). We meet the model who turned up to pose for Lois Lane (because Shuster “didn’t know how to draw women”) and ended up marrying Siegel; we meet his son, whom he abandoned (for reasons the play doesn’t make clear); and we meet various public figures who condemned comic books as immoral corruptors of America’s youth. The gifted, versatile ensemble tears into this parade of fun characters with great relish. At times, the demands of technical wizardry seem to steamroll the simple dramatic moments that are the connective tissue of any drama, but that might be an opening night thing. As Siegel, Rep newcomer Bob Amaral presents a sympathetic, if flawed, protagonist, whose misfortunes were often brought about by his own bad decisions (Antisemitism doesn’t seem to have directly caused his career problems; other Jewish comic book creators, like Bob Kane and Stan Lee, did okay—though they did change their names). We see the publishers abandon Siegel and Shuster, and Superman’s evolution from a fellow who’s basically just very good in gym class to the near-omnipotent figure he became in the hands of other writers; and we see how Siegel won eventual vindication with the help of loyal fans worldwide. Overall, it’s a joy ride, full of comedy, betrayal, and hard-earned triumph.
The concentration camp scenes unfold like a completely different play: respectfully, in muted colors, ostensibly linked with Siegel’s story by the dramatic conceit of a young prisoner who fantasizes that Superman is going to come and rescue him, which, it seems, is another fantasy created by Siegel’s mind as he lies dying: yet another dramatic conceit that allows for great fluidity of theatrical time and space—but hardly necessary, since plays often have that anyway (plus, we sometimes find ourselves wondering: “why is this guy in his bathrobe again?”). It seems workable, enough, if awkward. Still, the play never soars. Juxtaposing Siegel’s personal defeats with the defeat of the concentration camp revolt makes sense on paper; it puts Superman decisively in a larger historical and cultural context. But in performance, the enormous chasm in tone seems to diminishes both stories; the contrast feels both forced and off-pitch, at the expense of fleshing out Siegel’s story—his failed marriage, his estranged son, and crucially, the relation of a commercial artist to the political currents that surround him, the power of religious mythology, and the libidinal economy of fantasy. Katz leads us into a thicket of ideas without really making a path through them.
Another difficulty lies in the play’s frequent reliance on telling, not showing: as the Man of Steel, J J Philips cuts a fine figure in spandex, but his evident talents are often relegated to being a souped-up PowerPoint narrator, delivering factoids that would be better illustrated by dialog or incident. Katz gins up the drama by contriving a series of confrontations between Siegel and his creation, which too often devolve into tiresome one-note rants; and when a crazed Siegel attacks Superman with a hunk of green Kryptonite, the show comes dangerously close to jumping the shark.
This is only the play’s third time being produced, and playwrights often rework their scripts after seeing them performed. A History of Invulnerability could hardly find a fuller realization than this; let’s hope that it inspires Katz to take his great ideas back to the drawing board for another go.
A History of Invulnerability
by David Bar Katz
directed by Mark Clements
Milwaukee Repertory Theater
playing through May 4th
Tickets begin at $20.00.