Two riveting performances in John O'Keefe's Times Like These
Times Like These is based on the true story of two German actors, husband and wife Joachim Gottschalk and Meta Wolff. Both were very popular just prior to rise of Nazi party. Joachim was a popular romantic film actor while Meta was a leading German Jewish actress. After the Nazis came to power, Meta could not find work in the theater, and finally she received a notice that said she and her son must go to Teresienstadt Concentration Camp. Her Aryan husband wanted to go with her and his son, but the Nazi government refused his wish. As a result, the three committed suicide rather than go to the camp. The drama is loosely based on this true story with the son being left out in this play.
Meta Wolff (Laurie O'Brien) is the beloved German Jewish actress on the Berlin stage when the drama first opens. She is a glamorous diva who is strong willed and very determined to be the best in her field. Her husband Oscar Weiss (Norbert Weisser) is a less self-assured actor who seems weak when auditioning parts. This is brought out when Meta berates him at the beginning of the two act play, saying he could have had the role of Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew if he had asserted himself more. Instead, he receives a minor role while Meta gets the role of Kate.
Meta is not a practicing Jew. In fact, she has been raised a Protestant and has little knowledge of the Jewish religion. However, she is trapped by the officially sanctioned anti-Semitic laws. She can no longer appear on stage and she cannot be outside of her apartment after curfew. As a result, she is trapped while her devoted Aryan husband is allowed to appear in the Prussian Stage Theater.
Meta has a chance to flee to Switzerland, but Oscar has finally landed the role of Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew. The husband is willing to flee with her because of his great love for her, but she decides to stay and coach him to be a better actor. He becomes a success in the role and his next step on the ladder to fame will be the leading role in Hamlet
Meta devises a plan to get a few licks in against the Nazi government by having Oscar play the lead as a "Nazi thug" rather than a melancholy Dane. She is able to exploit a weak-minded director and a feud between Goering and Goebbels, two of the Nazi power men. Oscar slowly becomes more and more like the strong "brown shirt Hamlet" and she is creating a monster with some anti-Semitic feelings of his own. However, once the play has opened to critical and great acclaim, the Gestapo catches on to the implicit mockery and there are tragic consequences for the couple.
Both Laurie O'Brien and Norbert Weisser give riveting performances. O'Brien is stunning as we watch her wretched progression from undisputed queen of the Berlin Theatre to cringing, petrified prisoner in her own home. Her acting is mercurial and she displays every emotion, including an agoraphobic behavior when Meta has to go out of her apartment to the police station for an ID card. This is acting at its finest.
Norbert Weisser is also very spellbinding in his performance as a less than assured actor at the beginning of the drama. His metamorphosis from being a nice person to a beast and then back again at the end is absolutely amazing. Both of these fine actors have been playing this role for some time, from their Los Angeles triumph to their accomplishment here in San Francisco. The interplay between them is incredible. The playwright has created a great work of overwhelming power.
Times Like These ran through February 29. The company's next production will be the Jewish classic Dybbuk, set to open on April 21 and running through May 30.