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Writing for CurtainUp NYC Weather
|A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Never before has it been so painfully apparent that spirituality and civilization have nothing to do with one another
-- Ferdinand Bruckner, 1934, shortly after writing Race, which depicted events that prompted him to leave Germany
To most people today the name Ferdinand Bruckner doesn't ring a bell. Neither does his real name, Theodore Tagger. Yet during the 1920s and early 1930s the Viennese born Bruckner was one of the most successful German language playwrights. His trilogy of plays about the rudderless, disillusioned post World War I generation began with Sickness of Youth (1928) about two women who were medical students and best friends. It became a hit with European who responded to its depiction of lost young souls who hungered for life but were revolted by living. The Criminals (1933) presented another dramatic picture of this troubled era. It was an indictment of a society whose intellectuals did nothing to halt the spread of international murder and national suicide. Its characters, which include a young Nazi who discovers, too late, that he's in the wrong party, reflect the uncertainties of the populace and the gradual breakdown of justice. Later in 1933, fired up by events in Germany that led to his own exile, Bruckner wrote the more specific anti-Nazi play Race (originally called Races). Like Sickness of Youth it is about a group of medical students, in this case caught up in the hysteria of the ghastly nightmare of Hitler's rule of terror.
It is this third and most rarely performed play, that director Barry Edelstein, has adapted and brought for a limited run to the Classic Stage where he also serves as artistic director. Edelstein has added a valuable, highly charged production to the literature of the Holocaust. When Bruckner got Race produced in 1933, the events on stage were still unfolding on the stage of life in Germany. The passion and immediacy of the writing combined with Edelstein's cinematic adaptation and a large and able cast makes what was probably the first wakeup call by a dramatist, fascinating to see and compensate for the play's structural weaknesses.
The theater's stage has been configured into a T-Shaped platform which opens up the playing area and enhances the view of those sitting in the side sections. Simple set pieces are brought out and removed by the sixteen actors. The brick wall at the rear is a canvas for Jan Hartley's mood enhancing projections. When you take your seat, that canvas is blank except for the words Schütze eure Heimat (Protect our Homeland). Once the lights dim, the wall turns into a triptych that epitomizes the landscape and architecture of an idyllic pre-Hitler Germany. As the drama moves forward, the images of that canvas reflect the horrendous changes in the landscape of the German mind.
The structure is linear, with a good deal of back story worked into the dialogue during the initial scenes. The situation is confined to April and May of 1933, the crucial political period during which the parliamentary elections led to the opening of a new Reichstag and the beginning of the official persecution of the Jews. The setting is a university town in Western Germany, the section known as the Ruhr.
The first scene between the play's main character, Peter Karlanner (Stephen Barker Turner) and his childhood friend and fellow medical student Tessow (Tommy Schrider), establishes the characters and impending crisis situation. Both have been lost souls. Karlanner feels he's been saved from dissipation by his girl friend, Helene Marx (Jenny Bacon), the estranged daughter of a rich Jewish industrialist (Ronald Guttman). Tessow has found security and confidence by espousing Nazism and its rabid hatred of all Jews. He is determined to wrest Karlanner out of the arms of his girlfriend and into the embrace of the Party. Karlanner rejects the talk about the evil of the Jews as ridiculous, arguing that "all eternity begins with the Jews" Tessow counters "That's Jew talk!" Towards the end of this scene we also meet a third student, Nathan Siegelmann (Jeremy Shamos) who as a Jew will be the play's symbol of the general Jewish persecution to come.
To put what happens next in a nutshell: Karlanner is won over by Tessow and rejects Helene. He soon realizes the awfulness of his choice. Tessow too becomes disillusioned but it's too late. In the end, as Rosloh (a scarily convincing C. J. Wilson), the leader of the local Nazi faction and his thugs prevail, ideological decisions become an obsolete luxury. Wilson, like all the actors, manages to be very German with a welcome absence of German accent
Turner is wrenching as the tortured Karlanner, as is Jenny Bacon as his Jewish love and conscience. Tommy Schrider, whose work I admired in The Einstein Project (Our Review) in the Berkshires, is most persuasive as the sort of emotionally ungrounded young man easily drawn into the sturm and drang of the Nazi madness. Jeremy Shamos brings great dignity to the role of Siegelmann. He's particularly poignant when he explains that his fear is not of being killed but of being beaten and forgotten. Ronald Guttman ably capture the irony of his double role as a Nazi myth spouting district attorney and as the more German than Jewish Marx. Whether in the original text, or added by Edelstein, Marx's pride in the fact that his soapmaking factory contributes to Germany's superior hygiene, strikes a particularly ironic note since it won't be long before he can no longer lay claim to being part of a "special Jewish race" and the concentration camps will produce their own horrible kind of soap.
Race pulses with striking scenes, particularly election night in the beer hall, with Kirsten Sahs giving a lesson on the racial dominance of the blonde Aryan race, and her young son (Aaron Nutter) illustrating the ease with which young children were indocrinated. While there's a lot of speech making here, the occasion makes it all natural and the director adeptly keeps the oratory from getting out of hand.
Mr. Edelstein came across a translator's prompt script for Race while doing research in preparation for directing Sickness of Youth and was sufficiently moved to do his own, fresher translation and production. If he were a television mini series producer, he might have been able to present the three between-the-wars plays chronologically. That way the years during which the groundwork for Karlanner's actions was laid would have made his turnabout seem less abrupt than they do now. But instead of a multi-part drama this is a single effort by a small company to give life to a vital but dormant play. By pairing it with a one-person dramatization of the recently published diaries of Otto Klemperer the Classic Stage has achieved a remarkable link between 1933 and the end of World War II. (Klemperer's diaries detail how he, a convert to Christianity was nevertheless classified as a Jew who managed to survive the war only because he was married to a Christian woman).