KPBS AIRDATE: October 2, 1996
Dateline: 1994. Cincinnati. The Ensemble Theatre, which commissioned the world premiere of “Poor Superman,” is threatened with criminal charges of obscenity if the show doesn’t close. The County sheriff calls in the County prosecutor, and considers summoning a grand jury. This in the same enlightened city where, in 1990, Cincinnati police raided the Contemporary Arts Center to serve obscenity indictments on the museum for displaying the homoerotic photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe. But in the case of “Poor Superman,” the County Prosecutor saves the day, deciding not to press charges and to drop the whole matter.
Now, the Fritz Theatre has chosen “Poor Superman” as the 100th show in its incredibly productive five-year history. Not only haven’t there been any hysterics or hoopla about the language, themes and simulated sex acts in the play, those being fairly common occurrences at the Fritz, but you could actually hear more offensive words this season at the Old Globe (thanks to playwright David Mamet). Plus, there have been so many gay-themed plays all around San Diego, we’ve probably gotten a bit jaded. There is more here that is disturbing than shocking.
Press releases may describe Brad Fraser as the Tony Kushner of Canadian theater, but in my estimation, he’s got a long, long way to go to live up to that moniker. But he does raise issues here, though not the Really Big ones Kushner invariably tackles. Instead of setting his sights on Heaven and the Millennium (as Kushner does in epic plays like “Angels in America”), he uses Superman comics as his backdrop and primary (somewhat hokey) metaphor.
Fraser does take a fairly hard look at one slim slice of heterosexual, homosexual and transsexual modern life, and he turns a spotlight on self-involvement and sexual identity. But he uses a choppy, episodic style, underscored by projected thoughts and captions which make the proceedings even more bumpy, though occasionally, the projected subtext is both telling and humorous.
Duane Daniels, the Fritz Artistic Director, has mounted a very compelling production. He always finds inventive ways to use this irregular but malleable space. The theater is reconfigured again (I couldn’t believe I had nosebleed seats at the tiny Fritz!) — I much prefer the old wide-angle, close-to-the-action intimacy.
But from wherever you’re sitting, Michael Severance, K.B. Merrill and Christopher Wylie are outstanding — as the famous but aging gay painter David (who doesn’t look very aging here), and his two cronies: a cynical, bitchy and desperately single journalist and an almost-complete transsexual who’s dying of AIDS. The catalysts, a straight couple whom David works for as a waiter (just to rekindle his artistic inspiration), are by contrast, quite colorless. But the guy falls for David, and all the unhealthiness of all the relationships is revealed and explored at length before there is a modicum of resolution and growth. It’s not really deep, but it is disquieting.
Daniels has handled the pace and the sexual encounters most effectively. When the pithy, rapid-fire dialogue works, it crackles. Though it falters at times, “Poor Super Man” is well worth seeing. Almost anything the Fritz wrestles with is worth your time. This is one theater that isn’t afraid to provoke, outrage, exasperate, irritate, perturb, titillate and tickle — often all at the same time. And isn’t that what good theater is all about?
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1996 Patté Productions Inc.