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It's a Bird! It's a Play! Or Is It?
"The History of Invulnerability" at The Rep

The History of Invulnerability is a very strange play.

David Bar Katz’s biographical drama won an American Theater Critic Association award when it premiered in 2010, and Bar Katz is an experienced playwright whose is a member of New York’s Labyrinth Theater (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman was also with the group). His work with John Leguizamo earned a Tony nomination and Emmy award. But in Invulnerability, he seems more interested in—and perhaps overwhelmed by--the idea behind the play. The drama itself is something of a mess.

The idea is a good one. Jerry Siegel was a geeky Cleveland writer who created (along with his artist partner, Joe Schuster) all varieties of pulp fiction and comic books. In 1938, one of their ideas was picked up by National Allied Publications—later known as DC Comics. They were paid $130 for their character and all future rights. Superman was born. 

Michael Kroeker and Bob Amaral. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Invulnerability performs a kind of cultural-studies dissection of these events, speculating on the myriad subtexts behind the shy Midwestern Jew’s creation of a superhero. The Man of Steel is a sort of surrogate father to Siegel’s estranged son--he sends him copies of the comics after his divorce. And—the play implies—Superman is Siegel’s fantasy alter ego. He later marries the woman who modeled for the drawing of Lois Lane. But as his Superman soars, becoming a world sensation, Siegel can’t muster up the strength to stand up to his opportunistic publisher, who gives him little credit (or money) for his creation. As the world erupts into war, Siegel presses for more real-world storylines: Superman can bring down the Nazi menace and save his fellow Jews. Liberation through imagination and a little pen and ink.

It’s a fascinating, wide reaching story. And one that seems ripe for a History Channel-style biography. And for much of the play, The History of Invulnerability is exactly that. There are names, dates, quotations from letters and newspapers. There is the theatrical equivalent of “documentary re-enactments”—offering staged bits of episodes from Siegel’s life.

But mostly, there is talk. Siegel is onstage throughout the evening, telling the story directly to the audience—with a little help from a man in a cape and blue tights.

But in the theater, telling an audience a story and acting it out are two very different things. One can be dramatically engaging, the other inert. Director Mark Clements seems to suspect this potential problem, so the storytelling is supplemented with striking (and sometimes overpowering) projections (designed by Jared Mezzocchi), images that float across several screens above the Quadracci Powerhouse stage. They set the stage for particular scenes (concentration camp, the Big City), “accent” the script (clips from Superman movies, newsreels, captions), and depict Siegel’s comic book visions, sometimes impressively interacting with the life characters onstage.

Josh Landay, John Brotherhood and Bob Amaral. Photo by Michael Brosilaw.

But even with all the technical achievements, Invulnerability suffers from a lack of real, sustained drama. There is some narrative propulsion as we wonder about the fate of Siegel: will art triumph over filthy lucre? But Bar Katz’s play is leaping and bounding around too much to generate any sustained interest.

And there is another problem. There’s no lack of energy in Clements’ production. But the various elements of Invulnerability are so stylistically mismatched that you feel like you’re watching a half-dozen plays instead of one. Bob Amaral, playing Jerry Siegel, is a Broadway musical veteran, a classic song-and-dance man, and he brings a certain everyman charm to the role. But, at times, the role requires a real sense of gravitas, and it’s sorely missing here. As Superman, J.J. Philips looks the part, which is pretty much all he’s asked to do. And it didn’t help that both had problems with their lines on opening night. The rest of the ensemble cast play various bit roles, and there is some fine work here (particularly Gerard Neugent, Kelley Faulkner and Michael Kroeker). But these “vignettes” —little scenes that punctuate and illustrate Siegel’s story—are stylistically all over the place. The publisher with mob ties seems right out of Damon Runyon. Two monologues by Siegel’s estranged son have the quiet ordinariness of John Guare. Some images of warfare are intense and dramatic, and others are played for Hogan’s Heroes laughs. The agonizing, life-and-death drama of a concentration camp is the play’s dramatic muscle (with charged performances by Greg Wood, Josh Landay and the young John Brotherhood). But the play—with its erratic, comic-book tone--doesn’t “earn” these scenes. Juxtaposing one of the darkest moments in human history with parodic, comic-book heroism (literally) skirts perilously close to being in bad taste.

Since the Holocaust atrocities were discovered, philosophers and scholars have been debating the ethics of how to represent those horrifying events. Almost 25 years ago, Art Spiegelman used comics to brilliantly tell the story of his father’s experiences at Auschwitz. David Bar Katz may have wanted to similarly tap the potent synergy between Jerry Siegel’s creation and the unspeakable that nonetheless needs to be spoken of. But The History of Invulnerability is a misfire that—like Jerry Siegel’s creation—seems to come from another planet. 

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