Nothing but Sky's ambition is courageous

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      Written and directed by Kendra Fanconi. Produced by the Only Animal. In the Faris Family Studio at the Scotiabank Dance Centre on Friday, February 21. Continues until March 2

      Nothing but Sky gets smothered under the weight of its ambitions.

      In telling the story of Joe Shuster, the artist who first drew Superman, writer and director Kendra Fanconi and her team place live actors in a drawn, two-dimensional world. In Keith Murray’s video design, Joe’s apartment is a pencil sketch that’s projected onto the white wall of the set; when Joe’s radio is playing, it dances around, a little cartoon. And when Joe gets into a fistfight with Jerry Siegel, the writer behind Superman—because the two men are both vying for the love of Joann Kovacs, who was the model for Lois Lane—the screen behind them lights up with red-and-yellow lettering: “Poweee!”

      Most of this is clunky, though. Throughout the evening, but especially in Act 1, the story is in service to the special effects; emotional access is overlooked and the pace goes slack as the creative team strains to produce images that, in the end, usually aren’t worth the effort.

      Some visual passages do work. The young Joe and Jerry meet when they’re still in high school—Nothing but Sky is based on a true story—and as the pubescent Joe describes the process of creation, a shimmering drawn man appears on the set.

      Off the top, some of the writing is affecting too: Joe, Jerry, and Joanne were all Jewish and the script contextualizes Superman as a necessary pre–Second World War fantasy. It’s 1938 and Joe gets a letter from a relative in Poland: “Will no one save me?” Too often, though, the text is self-consciously poetic (“A heart is just an envelope. I keep addressing it and mailing it out”) or on the nose (“You are good, Joe, but you are not strong, and that is why you never win”).

      In Act 2, we finally get a couple of sustained scenes in which the characters talk to one another more or less like human beings. That’s when we see the full talent of the actors in this production. Thanks to the consistently excellent Amitai Marmorstein, who plays Joe, and Dawn Petten (Joann), the passage in which Joe proposes is powered by conflicting, destabilizing waves of feeling, and the themes of idealism and assertiveness finally get some flesh. Nothing but Sky is most at home with regret, and Robert Salvador (Jerry) persuasively embodies that brand of sorrow.

      There are fleeting strengths in this production, and we should all be grateful for the courage behind the ambition in Nothing but Sky—but the sum is underwhelming.