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Theater review: 'Superhero' keeps its secret identity

'Superhero'

'Superhero' courtesy event organizers

What kind of superhero story do we need in this heartsick summer of lost children and wildfires? An “infinity war” is hardly a comforting concept. Instead, Samantha Johns and George McConnell have delivered the tender tableau of Superhero, now onstage at the Southern Theater.

The Southern Theater
$20-$24; $12 students and seniors; free for ARTshare members

In a series of occasional collaborations over a decade, Johns and McConnell have created a series of uniquely intimate, powerful productions, often at DIY venues. The Thing (2010), a late-night celebration of love, vinyl, and the simple pleasures of pancakes, was held in the basement of what amounted to an artists’ squat. Snowfuck (2012), an exploration of trust incorporating real ice and fake snow, was a summertime show staged above a closed costume shop.

Superhero reminds you of Johns and McConnell’s gifts but doesn’t rank among their stronger efforts. Billed as a show that “explores the notion of the extra in the ordinary,” it’s an almost aggressively understated 70-minute production starring a couple dozen performers wearing ordinary street clothes and superhero masks.

There’s not a conventional narrative, but you might surmise that these heroes are trying to save... themselves, from ennui. Although stirring songs and even Inception-style braaams are sometimes heard blaring from the sound system, these heroes aren’t really here to get pumped up. When Alicia Keys sings, “this! girl! is on fiiiiirrrrrrre,” they stand and regard the audience stoically, like they’re daring us to believe her.

In this largely movement-based performance, there are fleeting moments of grandeur. A couple of heroes briefly don stage-spanning plastic-sheet capes; tantalizing lights shine through long rows of cinder blocks (a moment when blocks slowly scrape against each other may trigger some Home Depot ASMR); and a climactic deployment of color guard flags is set to Peter Gabriel’s aching rendition of David Bowie’s “Heroes.”

Whether it’s the space or the cast or the masks, though, Superhero just doesn’t deliver the jolts of emotion that powered these artists’ best work. Its conceit tends to sit on the surface: We’re very much left to decide for ourselves what these inexpressive figures are grappling with. It’s moving when they finally remove their masks, but that’s more because we’ve been given so little else to react to than because the unmasking scene is particularly compelling in and of itself.

Even the show’s warmest moments tend to come off as mawkish rather than vulnerable. “I want to punch you in your mouth,” says one hero, “with my mouth. Softly.” At another point, a performer asks an audience member if she can “show you my heart.” She then takes the attendee’s hand and presses it to her throat, as the rest of us all wait for long silent moments. Presumably she has a pulse, but this Superhero could nonetheless use a dose of adrenaline.