(Photo by Steve Graue)
I remember, as a child, riding my bike to Schofield’s, a local stationary store, to spend hours leafing through the newest comic books on display and to decide which of them I would spend my money on. For the most part, the management allowed it since they knew my friends and I would always buy something in the end (though they’d say something if we were clearly reading the books from start to finish…a temptation that sometimes was too hard to ignore).
I also remember that, when I was seriously ill in fourth grade, my biggest concern was that I was going to miss an episode of “Batman” while I was in the hospital. I wasn’t so worried about the illness itself. Nope, I was worried about the Caped Crusader (to the extent that I distinctly recall having Batman-themed visions while under anesthesia): clearly, I had my priorities straight.
Like so many other kids, superheroes were an indelible aspect of my childhood. (OK, not just my childhood: I have seen all of the Marvel movies and TV shows, most at least twice. What can I say? I’m an overgrown kid.) So when I saw that City Lit Theatre was producing a show called The Mark of Kane, Mark Pracht’s world premiere exploration of the story of Batman’s creation, you can say I was instantly hooked. And I’m happy to say that the resulting play, directed by City Lit Artistic Director Terry McCabe, is—if anything—even more compelling to this comics fan than its subject matter.
The “Kane” of the title is Robert “Bob” Kane (Josh Zagoren), the man who was famously credited with “creating” what was then known as “The Batman” in 1939. But truth is often far more complicated than fiction, and that “by Bob Kane” credit didn’t tell the full story at all. As Pracht’s well-researched script informs us, Kane was just a struggling comics artist before he got together with a talented writer named Bill Finger (Todd Wojcik) in an attempt to create “the next Superman” in a single weekend. They brainstormed the idea of “Batman” together, but Kane’s first go at visualizing the character was a ridiculous Superman ripoff that Finger, undoubtedly correctly, said wouldn’t last a month in the public’s imaginations even if it did somehow get published. Though Kane drew it, the image of Batman as we know him—dark, brooding, cowled, mysterious, and absolutely human—was all Finger’s concept. Even the Bruce Wayne alter ego was a Finger creation. The best idea that Kane had, as it turned out, was to demand a contracted credit line—unheard of at the time—that ultimately made him the sole creator of Batman in the eyes of the public, as well as the one person who got to hold the purse strings in what became a large group effort.
After going behind Finger’s back to essentially steal their creation, Kane became well-known and very rich, which his co-creator…did not. Told through a series of scenes recalling the birth of the character through the memories of several members of the writing team at the first ComicCon, The Mark of Kane is riveting despite the fact that it is ultimately about a “supervillain” whose crime is the notably un-flashy one of having enough greed and business sense to screw his partner out of his share of what they made. Not exactly The Joker (who was also Finger’s creation).
Pracht and McCabe whisk us back and forth in time as we learn through the ComicCon panel that pretty much no one remembers Finger, who actually wrote almost everything we know about Batman, while Kane, who originally wanted the Dark Knight to be a blonde guy in red tights who could fly, remains a famous figure in comics history. (The title, of course, is a pun on the Biblical Cain, who killed his brother and was branded with a “mark” by God due to the evil he had committed. Kane didn’t kill Finger—at least literally—but he certainly did everything but; Finger died penniless and unknown.) From the initial panel setup, we watch their partnership come together and the creation of The Batman: Pracht leaves no doubt as to the truth of the matter, and the false and unworthy Kane makes a great villain here. Zagoren’s preening, smarmy portrayal shows a man who has completely fallen for his own hype. Even face to face with Finger, he continues to insist that his version of the story is true…even though every other character knows it is not.
We also get glimpses into the families that shaped these two men into such different people. Finger’s nasty, abusive parents, memorably played by Laura Coleman and John Wehrman, who constantly belittle him and his artistic ambitions, couldn’t be further from the well-off Kanes, who coddle their son and instill in him a sense of entitlement. Finger, whose parentally-crafted sense of self is so low that he believes he doesn’t even deserve success, is ripe for the picking. Even a loving wife (Annie Hogan) he somehow manages to back into cannot help him to see his own self-worth. He was doomed before he got started.
G. “Max” Maxin IV’s integrated set, lighting, and projection design is sleek and fun—and true to the comics genre—and the underscoring by Petter Wahlback provides depth and a sense of place to each scene. Rachel S. Parent, as Costume Designer, doesn’t need to provide superhero designs, but the suits and dresses here help each character to feel a part of the various decades in which the story takes place. Director (and Sound Designer) McCabe keeps the action flowing smoothly even during a couple of slow set changes, and the fact that all of the furniture is already onstage at the start helps enormously. The actors sometimes, if it is within their characters to do so, even have obvious fun moving things around.
We are introduced to a lot of more or less interchangeable or anonymous minor characters who are difficult to recall or differentiate, but there is little McCabe can do about that, especially when so many actors are double or triple-cast. It’s fine, though, because our focus (and his) is clearly on Kane and Finger and the relationship between them. He obviously has worked with his leads to build complex characters we can recognize and understand; pretty much everyone else is presented in relation to them, though smaller characters and moments are portrayed with considerable deep emotion. On opening day, the audience stopped the play many times to give scenes and performances well-earned applause, a sign that they were deeply connecting to the play, and Wehrman and Coleman, as the elder Fingers, got perhaps the longest and most deserved.
The Mark of Kane is the first play in a planned three-year tribute to the history of comics in America. After seeing this one, I will certainly be looking forward to the others. Tickets for The Mark of Kane are available from City Lit and at 773-293-3682. It is playing at City Lit’s home at 1020 W. Bryn Mawr in the Edgewater Presbyterian Church through Dec 4. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.