David Bar Katz probably has more in common with Jerry Siegel than with Superman, but he’s put them onstage together in his world premiere play The History of Invulnerability at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. (Read my review here.)
As a kid, Bar Katz was a geek about comic books. He loved Superman then — and at the age of 44, he still does. But along the way he learned about Siegel, a young man from Cleveland who, with his artist buddy Joe Shuster, conceived of the Man of Steel in the late 1930s and then unwittingly signed away their rights to the franchise for a meager, one-time paycheck.
Siegel was one of several young Jews who created superheroes in the golden age of comics (1935-1955). That inspired Bar Katz’s play about the motivation to imagine an “invulnerable” man. Pressed by a deadline, he wrote hurriedly and expressionistically, in a manner unlike his previous scripts.
“I made decisions I probably wouldn’t have made had I sat and thought more,” Bar Katz says. “The play happens in the psyche of Jerry Siegel, and everything is the product of unconscious forces in his brain.”
Siegel is constantly onstage, trying to present his version of his story. But he keeps being interrupted by Superman.
“They interact with one another,” Bar Katz explains.
“Superman represents his unconscious provoking him.”
Referencing works like A Christmas Carol and Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz in which characters review their lives, Bar Katz’s play “feels like you’re in a guy’s head, a dream, like it was happening at the moment a guy was dying.”
The History of Invulnerability is not a linear tale. “You see a scene that Jerry is in, a particular time of his life, Bar Katz says, "but then you’re shoved out of it for a discussion with Superman. Then back into another episode of Jerry’s life. Then to a concentration camp.”
Bar Katz learned that Siegel’s creation affected people worldwide, including Jews in places like Auschwitz, fantasizing about escape and salvation. “Then maybe you’re in a scene from the comic book, with Superman fighting bad guys.”
Bar Katz says his plays are usually more rooted in reality. (He was nominated for a Tony in 1998 for Freak, a one-man script for John Leguizamo that became an award-winning HBO special.)
“This play is radically different from anything I’ve ever written, although my works always have huge changes in tone," he says. "I don’t believe in creating something that’s just dramatic and serious or funny. Like life, it’s a comedy until something goes awfully wrong.”
And lots of things went wrong in Jerry Siegel’s life.
Confessing that he isn't a writer who delights to see his work onstage (“I’m generally miserable”), Bar Katz has been strangely moved by his script and watching rehearsals of his friend David Deblinger playing Siegel. He’s portraying a man who, he says, “was really just fucked and yet he created this thing that means so much to all of us. Because of the truth of it.”
Bar Katz was raised in “a very WASPy section of Philadelphia,” so he understood the alienation and frustration Siegel felt, “an ambivalent relationship with your artistic creations, being self-conscious about Jewish characteristics. And a desire to fight battles in the real world using your fiction.”
His understanding of Siegel’s vulnerability became the foundation for his profoundly human play about “invulnerability.”
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