Superman 2050 finds Clark Kent defending bullet trains
A Chicago company anchors an international kids’ theater fest with a superheroic show.
We’ll be the first to tell you that Chicago Humanities Festival’s kid-centric Stages, Sights & Sounds isn’t toting any dead weight on its lineup. Amid the impressive five-show fest running May 2–12, jaws are particularly primed to drop for the hometown heroes of Theater Un•Speak•Able and their daring Superman 2050.
The stage: an impossibly tiny, modular seven-by-three-foot platform. The sights: Superman rescuing Chicago’s high-speed rail from villain Lex Luthor. The sounds: seven precariously perched actors, vocally whooshing Kryptonian exploits into existence. After bringing the full-tilt physical production to New York in January, Un•Speak•Able assumes the post as the sole American group included in CHF’s international festival.
“If a piece doesn’t blow us away, we don’t bring it!” CHF programming director Mary Kate Barley-Jenkins assures us. In her seven years with the organization, the West Rogers Park resident has taken a hands-on approach to the selection process, making it a priority to see every play CHF considers. After a colleague discovered Superman 2050 last year in a performance at Wrigleyville’s Links Hall, they decided the kinetic tale was a compelling match for Stages, Sights & Sounds, now in its 13th year. Barley-Jenkins says she was impressed by the company’s “strong urge to tell a story, no matter what.”
In the case of Un•Speak•Able artistic director Marc Frost, the story indeed found the storyteller. While studying actor-created theater at the London International School of Performing Arts, Frost, 28, helped create a ten-minute adaptation of the 1978 classic Superman starring Christopher Reeve. Simultaneously, he fell in love with high-speed rail. “I was able to shoot out of the city and be on the coast or in Paris in two hours without ever having to worry about gas, traffic or parking,” Frost explains. “It just felt very civilized and environmentally friendly.”
When he decided to expand the original short into its current 35-minute length, Frost realized his train love dovetailed with Superman lore. “This time, I wanted to use Superman’s qualities to talk about high-speed rail,” he says. “ ‘Faster than a speeding bullet train! More powerful than a locomotive!’ … There were a lot of ways to make high-speed rail seem fun, through the lens of a fast-paced Superman tale.”
While both Frost and Un•Speak•Able producer Zachary Baker-Salmon, 24, would like to see a Midwestern high-speed rail system built by midcentury, Superman 2050 is not a proselytizing trope. The “footprint” making the most impact here is the quickly morphing platform stage and the eye-popping acrobatics of the bespandexed actors atop it. “Our challenge is to make people literally not believe what they are seeing, like a magician [does],” Baker-Salmon says. “For instance, we re-create the ‘Do you trust me?’ scene from the 1978 film. For a moment, in our fast, comic-book style piece, it looks as if Superman and Lois actually hover above the platform.”
In a city where the genre of American Realism is king, the mime, puppetry and physical theater championed by Stages, Sights & Sounds stand as a tower of imagination for kids and parents alike. It’s no surprise that each of the five featured pieces inhabit worlds in which the only norm is the fantastic (see sidebar for details).
“I don’t ever want to lose the love of play myself,” Barley-Jenkins says. “And what I hope the kids, and maybe the adults, take away is that there is room for play no matter how old you are.”
Superman 2050 overcomes kryptonite May 2–6. Visit chicagohumanities.org for more information.