Four years ago, Raleigh Ensemble Players stunned the Triangle theater community and local theatergoers with its audacious no-holds-barred production of openly Gay Canadian playwright Brad Fraser's Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, which the Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia called "a fascinating seriocomic gothic horror story with chilling shadows and scrappy dialogue." Unidentified Human Remains featured nudity, simulated Gay and straight sex, and graphic violence galore to punctuate a tawdry 1989 tale about an especially vicious fictional serial killer haunting Fraser's hometown of Edmonton, Alberta in the 1980s and a small circle of friends that just might include the prime suspect for this series of horrifying murders.
Now, REP is producing the North Carolina premiere of Poor Super Man, which had its world premier in 1994 at the Ensemble Theatre in Cincinnati, Ohio, and was subsequently selected as one of the year's best plays by TIME Magazine. (Poor Super Man also won Canada's Chalmers Award and a nomination for the Governor General's Award.) Another R-rated drama by the bad boy of Canadian theater, this two-act play chronicles the rocky relationship between a struggling Gay visual artist and a bisexual married man. It unfolds, in comic-book form, complete with captions, in a series of short scenes that document the artist's love life and friendships, including his friendship with a person dying of AIDS.
"We've actually been considering [Poor Super Man] for inclusion in our season for at least two years," says REP artistic director C. Glen Matthews, who will co-direct the show with Heather Willcox. Matthews adds, "Since working on Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, we've spent some time looking at Fraser's other works; and Poor Super Man seemed to be not only one of the playwright's stronger pieces, but also a perfect match for REP."
Matthews says, "There are a number of things that drew me to this piece. While many regard the piece as a Gay play, the story and themes are universal. Each one of us, at some point in our life, finds himself/herself lost — wanting to change, knowing we need to change, but not knowing how to do it or either lacking the motivation to start the process. Suddenly, a catalyst presents itself and, BAM!, we find ourselves moving, and we hope it's in the right direction.
"Does this lead to change?" Matthews asks. "Can we really change who we are? Is it right to even want to try? These questions are central to the characters within the world of the play and they are certainly questions that are central to us as human beings."
He says, "Another aspect of the piece that many members of our artistic committee found compelling was the theatricality of Fraser's writing and, in particular, his use of captions throughout the play. In an effort to connect the story and characters of Poor Super Man with the plight of the comic book hero [Superman], Fraser uses captions — phrases, words, ideas — to underscore the action. The captions serve a number of purposes, defining locale, communicating the passage of time, or giving the audience a peek into what a particular character is really thinking or wanting to say. It's a fascinating and exciting concept.
"Considered by many to be Fraser's best-received work," says Matthews, "this 'spiritual sequel' to Remains finds that play's central character, David McMillan (C. Glen Matthews), in an artistic quagmire. A celebrated visual artist, David is finding it difficult to produce new work and the fact that his life is populated by Shannon (Kareem Nemley), a HIV-positive, pre-operative transsexual roommate, and Kryla (Carole Marcotte), a female newspaper columnist friend of 20 years, isn't making things any easier."
Matthews says, "Realizing that he was at his creative best when he was working as a waiter, David decides to return to his humble beginnings. Enter Matt (Zach Thomas) and Violet (Betsy Henderson), owners/operators of the fledgling Monteray Diner and in desperate need of a new waitperson. David finds his muse in Matt, and the precarious events that unfold run parallel to the unprecedented 1992 decision by DC Comics to kill its beloved hero [Superman]. In the end, David and those around him must come face to face with the harsh realities of love, loss, and life in a time defined by the AIDS epidemic."
Co-directed by Glen Matthews and Heather Willcox, Poor Super Man also features an production team that includes assistant director Sunny Franzene, scenic/costume/lighting designer Shannon Clark, video/projection designer Bridget Harron, sound designer Heather Willcox, technical director/props mistress Miyuki Su.
Making Poor Super Man into a mega-hit a la Unidentified Human Remains presents considerable creative challenges to directors Matthews and Willcox and their production team.
"Mr. Fraser is a pistol," claims Glen Matthews. "He writes in a very cinematic style, switching quickly from one location to another. (There are some 59 'scenes' in Act 1 alone!) He fills these locations with characters who are gritty, quirky, funny, and downright raw. Combine this with the aforementioned captions, and you've got quite a stew on your hands. It requires great patience, care, and sensitivity ... and the right people in place."
Matthews says, "We've worked very hard to ensure that the right individuals are indeed in place, and we've been very blessed. We've also strived to create a safe and open working environment for all of the artists, and I've encouraged each of them to risk all and fail boldly. This type of foundation has to be in place, especially considering some of the things Fraser demands of the us. It's very challenging and very exciting material."
He adds, "Much of the design, as well as our approach to telling the story, stems from the production teams' controlling image of a vessel/container and what happens when that which is in the vessel becomes no more. How does it become no more? Well, depending upon the actual substance, it may seep or leak or spill or evaporate or overflow or flood or gush or drip or condense....
"As we move through the play," Matthews explains, "the characters (the vessels) are leaking and the audience has the opportunity to see what happens when the contents of each of the vessels mix. Shannon Clark's inspiration piece for the set was a simple martini glass. The geometric qualities of this glass gave birth the treatment of the acting space. The lighting helps to support the mixing of the characters while also assisting us in defining location. The costumes and sound define the vessels and establish the time period in which the events unfold. All of these elements combine to provide us a simple, evocative palette with which we paint the story."
Warning: Poor Super Man contains material of a graphic and explicit nature. No one under 17 will be admitted without a parent or guardian.
Raleigh Ensemble Players presents Poor Super Man Thursday-Saturday, April 22-24, at 8 p.m.; Wednesday-Saturday, April 28-May 1, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, May 2, at 3 p.m.; Wednesday-Thursday, May 5 and 6, at 8 p.m.; Friday, May 7, at 10:30 p.m.; and Saturday, May 8, at 8 p.m. in Artspace Gallery II, 201 E. Davie St., Raleigh, North Carolina$15 ($10 students with valid ID and $12 seniors over 60 and military personnel), except April 28th pay-what-you-can performance ($5 suggested minimum). Group rates are available. 919/832-9607 (TTY 835-0624) or http://www.realtheatre.org/SUPERMANreservation.htm. Note 1: The April 24th performance will be a $25-per-ticket fundraiser and reception. Note 2: The April 30th performance will be audio described and sign language interpreted, with Large-Print and Braille programs on hand and a Tactile Tour beginning at 7 p.m. Raleigh Ensemble Players: http://www.realtheatre.org/pages/2004/shows/superman2004two.htm. Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia: http://www.canadiantheatre.com/dict.pl?term=Brad%20Fraser [inactive 6/04].