Ever since he made his debut into the American pop culture world, Superman has been a character who made people wonder what he really was. Â After all, he's technically an alien disguised as a human.
"Look. Up in the Sky. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, itâ€™s Superman."
That was kind of the way I felt walking out of the opening night of "The History of Invulnerability" at the Milwaukee Rep, which runs through May 4.Â I wasnâ€™t totally sure what I had just watched, but I knew whatever it was had made me a little uncomfortable.
Playwright David Bar Katz sets out to tell the story of Jerry Siegel, who along with artist Joe Shuster, created Superman.
Itâ€™s an interesting and even fascinating story, full of factoids sure to summon a lot of "I didnâ€™t know that" crowd reactions in the early going.
Siegel and Shuster were Jewish. Jews also created Batman, Spiderman, Popeye, Tarzan, Zorro and the Incredible Hulk, among many others.Â Katz's script posits that it is their very Jewishness that drove Siegel and Shuster to create what may well be the most enduring fictional character ever made.Â
And once that part of the door is opened â€“ being Jewish â€“ the door becomes a swinging door like the old time cowboy westerns used to have.Â The audience is dragged along, first one side, then the other, then back again, then once more through the door.
But I wonder about that initial claim. The two were teenagers when they had the idea for Superman, and it took them six years to get someone to buy in.Â Certainly the kind of person Siegel was played a big role in his signature creation.
"Make him everything that I wasnâ€™t," he says. "Look me over, then draw the opposite."
The story has all of the elements of a good play: creativity, the struggle to escape obscurity, being ripped off by businessmen, years of suffering and a failed attempt to win back your hero, and an eventual moment of recognition, finally.
What happened was that Siegel and Shuster sold the rights to Superman for $130. The hero went on to earn millions and millions, while none of it went to the creators.
For some reason, however, Katz isnâ€™t satisfied with that story. Instead, he makes Siegelâ€™s life a metaphor for the historic struggle of Jews.
Alternating between scenes of reality and fantasy,Â "The History of Invulnerability" takes us to the drama of a Nazi prison camp, complete with three male prisoners in those familiar vertical striped uniforms.
This was where the Jewish blood that courses through my veins began to curdle a bit.
Here we were in the middle of a play, and we faced two compelling and familiar stories: the artist tortured by the creative process and one of the darkest periods of the 20th century.
These two stories are carried on the wings of one of the most inventive and creative sets Iâ€™ve ever seen. Eight multi-edged screens are home to a wide variety of slides and videos, accompanied by a soundtrack of life as a superhero and life as a Jewish prisoner of war. The video production designed by Jared Mezzocchi fits beautifully into the set designed by Todd Edward Ivins.
The cast, under Mark Clements careful and stunning direction, wrung every emotion possible out of this script. Bob Amaral as Siegel and JJ Phillips as Superman, were also outstanding.
But in the end, this play canâ€™t quite grasp what it wants to be, and I was left in the lurch created by this schizophrenia.
I can relate to the historical discrimination against Jews. I can also relate to the difficulties of the creative process and being ripped off.Â What was problematic for me was that I felt that the play, taking place in Siegelâ€™s memory just hours before he dies, doesnâ€™t really go anywhere important.
I understand Siegelâ€™s feeling that his hero has been exploited. It was almost as if Katz had decided to add all the Holocaust stuff to make his play seem more important. What it did was muddy the waters of a pretty good story.
Jews are very sensitive to their history, and the tales that have taken place in books, plays and movies are very moving. Whatâ€™s not moving is the feeling that your faith is being used for some minor purpose.
At one point near the end of the play, Superman argues that he has outgrown Siegelâ€™s simple creation and has become a hero with powers unknown to Siegel.Â Siegel is horrified by the prideful Superman who is moving into realms that are totally foreign to Siegel.Â
"You are golem," he screams at Superman. "Golem."Â
"Golem" is a Jewish term used to describe an artificial character who is usually created by a kind of magic. Most often the golem is a servant of the creator.
After that moment, the stage filled with about a dozen naked actors who stood underneath a nozzle that spread gas on them, and one by one, they fell to the floor.Â
It was at that moment I began to realize that this play was golem as well, something artificial made to serve its creator, not the rest of us.
Thanks for the review but please figure out how to write a review without giving away the ending. If you can't do that, please post a 'spoiler alert' to warn your readers. Otherwise, I won't be able to read your reviews until after I see the show.
1 comment about this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Dave Begel
Published Nov. 26, 2015
Sometimes a day like Thanksgiving can be a little confusing.Do you give thanks for your new job or your new car or your new girlfriend? Dave Begel has four very special reasons to give thanks.
Published Nov. 24, 2015
Now that the Green Bay Packers seem to finally be back on track I'm ready to give thanks for some of the things about the world of sports that makes life so special. Happy Thanksgiving.
Published Nov. 22, 2015
Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap" opened in London's West End in 1952 and it's still going strong making it the longest running play in modern history. The Rep production shows why it's been so popular.
Published Nov. 21, 2015
"My Fair Lady" opened a month-long run at Skylight Music theatre Friday night and the overwhelming performances of Norman Moses and Natalie Ford make it a perfect theater outing during the holiday season.
Published Nov. 19, 2015
It's never too late, especially if you want to be a Republican who runs for president of the United States. And Wisconsin has several worthy candidates who would fit the bill to be the GOP nominee.
Published Nov. 17, 2015
It is hard to overestimate the shock and humiliation of the Packers' 18-16 loss to the Lions on Saturday. Detroit was a team and an organization in turmoil. Green Bay was playing in invincible Lambeau Field.
Published Nov. 17, 2015
For over 1,000 times Doug Mancheski and Steve Koehler have gathered around them an audience of average people who love "Guys On Ice," now running at the Stackner Cabaret of the Milwaukee Rep.
Published Nov. 14, 2015
Enrico Caruso's star blazed brightly until his death at 48 and his final performance, on Christmas Eve, 1920, is the tale impressively told in "Bravo. Caruso!" that opened at Next Act Theatre Friday night.
Published Nov. 12, 2015
Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn made an off handed remark at a symposium this week that the Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee was a "clown college." Buying into that is a move filled with peril.
Published Nov. 12, 2015
County Executive Chris Abele's appointment of Mequon-Thiensville Supt. Demond Means as the commissioner of the new Opportunity Schools Program was met with some indifference and some opposition Thursday.