Amitai Marmorstein’s dream as an actor was to play a superhero. However, in an interview with the Jewish Independent in April 2011, he bemoaned the type of roles he was getting and said, “I can never play an action hero, but I often play younger boys.” Fast-forward three years and Marmorstein’s dream has come true – in a way. In the world première of Nothing But Sky, written and directed by local playwright Kendra Fanconi, Marmorstein takes on the role of Joe Shuster, one of the creators of the iconic DC Comics character Superman. The play runs Feb. 21-March 2 at Scotiabank Dance Centre’s Farris Family Studio.
Canadian-born artist Shuster teamed up with writer Jerry Siegel, whom he met in high school, and together they gave the world its best-known superhero. Originally depicted as a bald, ugly villain determined to rule the world, Shuster and Siegel morphed their creation into the handsome character we know today, modeled on swashbuckling actor Douglas Fairbanks Sr. The name of Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent, was made up of a combination of names of then popular movie stars Clark Gable and Kent Taylor.
Superman was an instant hit as a defender of truth, justice and the American way. Unfortunately, Shuster and Siegel were poor businessmen and neglected to secure a copyright, leading to lawsuits with the publishers and the loss of their creation in the 1940s. Undaunted, they came together again in 1948 to create a new hero, Funnyman, a Jewish crime fighter who used humor and sarcasm to defeat his foes – or, as one pundit called him, a “crime-fighting meshuggeneh.” Unfortunately, Funnyman never caught on. Shuster and Siegel parted company, and Shuster experienced a low period, during which time his eyesight deteriorated and he was forced to take work drawing pornographic cartoons to make ends meet.
Marmorstein and Fanconi sat down to talk with the JI before a recent weekend rehearsal. Fanconi described the genesis of the production. “I had an acting teacher who said that movement is like a cartoon character,” she said. “I had just finished working on a project with kids where we meshed line drawings with video projections that interacted on stage, and I thought it would be fun to play with these two concepts – to tell a story through an evolving comic strip. So, I looked for a Canadian artist to showcase, and I found Joe Shuster.”
She set about researching the Jewish duo. “I fell in love with the story of Shuster and Siegel and their Superman. Contextually, he was developed just prior to the Second World War and at a time when Hitler was coming to power in Europe. Shuster and Siegel were these two nerdy little Jewish guys who came from immigrant families and who were bullied at school. They came up this character, who outwardly appeared to be meek and mild but had real inner power and [the] strength to conquer evil. Although Shuster felt that he was powerless to do anything about what was happening in Europe, by creating the superhero, he actually did something that changed the world.”
The third character in the show is Joanne Kovacs, who became the model for Lois Lane. In real life, they were a love triangle and Kovacs ended up picking Siegel, although she later lamented that she may have made the wrong choice. Fanconi noted, “The story traces their 60-70 years together, through the pinnacle to their fall. I find it more interesting to portray people who are deeply crushed by life and who deal with their losses than those who do not have to deal with adversity. The Lois character is particularly strong, she is an early feminist full of bravery and bravado. She does not have bulletproof skin like the superhero, but she throws herself into various situations to get her story. Actor Dawn Petten does a fantastic job playing that role.”
Projections, action sequences and animated characters are used to move through the development of the comic strip. “It is a beautiful but tragic story and we tell it through the form of a living comic book,” Fanconi said. “Keith Murray translated the comic book into a series of projections. It is a video design from beginning to end. It is like creating a comic, starting with a blank page in pencil and then moving through ink and then into color – an evolution – and the color adds emotional resonance. The animation [i]s provided by Paul Dutton of Academy Award-nominated Triplets of Belleville fame who has the last hand-drawn animation studio in Canada. His work is phenomenal.”
Marmorstein loved Superman as a kid. “I never thought I would get a chance to play him,” he said. “When I read Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, based on the lives of Shuster and Siegel, I thought some day I’d like to play one of those guys. When I heard about the audition for this play, I was so excited. Usually, I treat auditions all the same and do not get too emotional about them; whatever happens, happens. But I fell head over heels in love with Shuster’s character and I really wanted the part so it was a very traumatic few weeks for me while I waited to hear whether or not I had landed the role. When I found out, I was ecstatic. Coming to work is a joy for me,” he continued. “I do not think of it as a job at all.” Marmorstein felt he was right for the Shuster character. “I relate to his character – someone who outwardly does not have confidence in himself yet, underneath, is very strong and powerful. Working with Robert Salvador [as Jerry] has been great. We really complement each other’s style.”
Fanconi noted that the show is not just for comic book fans but also for anyone who likes a good story. “My hope is that the audience will have moments of depression and moments of joy. If I had to use one word to describe the production, it is ‘dazzling.’”
Tova Kornfeld is a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.