Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
At a booze-laden New Year's Eve party to usher in 1932, a group of friendsartists and free thinkers, some engaged with Germany's Communist Partystumble over their hopes for the year ahead, easily dismissing the upstart Nazis and their wretched leader with his vulgar mustache. By the play's end, less than two years later, their lives have been completely torn asunder as the unthinkable becomes stark reality.
As we espy this historically set fictional clique in a rare and well-formed mounting by Red Bird Theatre, another observer, Zillah, takes note and expresses strongly stated parallels to her own time, which is the mid 1980s. In other words, when Kushner unleashed the play, he created Zillah to connect the past to what then was the "present." Zillah is perched on a loft bathed in black that overlooks the naturalistic 1932 Berlin apartment. She appears to be a college student (based on her dorm-style desk). She studies the infestation of the Third Reich upon the German nation as a way to interpret the desecration of democracy she sees in her own time and nationthe United Stateswith explicit references to Ronald Reagan and his cronies.
The Berlin apartment, handsomely designed by Justin Spooner complete with faded wallpaper, is where Agnes, the play's central character, lives. Agnes is an actress who has not attained a high level of success and a would-be activist who sympathizes with the Communists but has not the grit to firmly latch on. Her lover Vealtninc Husz, who lives with Agnes, is a Hungarian film director and ardent Communist, a cause which cost him an eye during an upheaval that forced him to leave Budapest. Others in their circle are Gregor, a homosexual psychologist employed at an institute for human sexuality; Paulinka, an acclaimed actress whose celebrity gives her a certain amount of influence but also places her under close scrutiny; and Annabella, a painter and Communist who creates posters promoting the party. All of them are forced to come to terms with the encroaching horror, like a foul stench rising out of the floor and filling the room, and to make life-altering choices.
We also meet Emil and Rosa, Communist activists Agnes connects with in order to perform a skit she writes as a way to support the party. Both Emil and Rosa have sworn to fight for their cause, but the two bicker like rival siblings about tactics and strategies. Deep in act one, when Paulinka is "invited" to appear in Nazi films (does she really have a choice?), a sinister visitor Gottfried Swetts shows Paulinka just how far she is willing to bend, and horrifies Agnes. Then there is the old woman Die Alte, who climbs in through the window to steal food off Agnes' table. Times are hard, food is in short supply, and this woman has learned how to survive. After Agnes discovers her, the two enter into a strained relationship, part combatants, part allies, sometimes more alike than Agnes would ever admit.
The narrative built around Agnes, her cluster of friends, and the stranger who climbs through her window is compelling, with sharp dialogue and a clear eye to how the winds of change can sweep the floor from under our feet. Agnes is a particularly well-crafted character, paralyzed by forces of history even as her friends take action, and played with astonishing veracity by Kimberly Richardson, who conveys the growing terror within a person who finds that she lacks the courage to pay the price of "doing the right thing." She cries out at others not to leave, saying they are needed to carry on the fight in which she believes. Yet, she cannot summon the fight within herself.
On the other hand, Zillah's commentaries are more difficult to absorb. She conflates past failures to stem the tide of totalitarian power with the breaking news of her own day, but too often her remarks loop around in overly literary passages delivered with wrought emotions that blunt the messages she means to convey. Perhaps Kushner did not trust audiences to make those connections in 1985 and created Zillah as a teaching tool. To me, her presence actually dilutes the play's potency, at least in terms of an audience today. There is nothing subtle about the lines drawn between acquiescence to power in 1932 Germany and resurgent white nationalism in 2019. In one gripping scene, Annabella and Gregor have "infiltrated" a Nazi rally to learn what kind of people are being taken in by their bluster. What they see are ordinary people, working people crushed under Germany's strangled economy, who want to believe that the boisterous excesses of the party will somehow make life better for them. We do not need Zillah's rants to bring this to our own doorstep.
Kushner inserts projections between the play's many scenes that issue headlines, charting for us the amazingly swift progress of the Nazi's consolidation of power, and turning to such indications of the catastrophe to come as banning the Communist Party, banning all labor unions, the fire at the Reichstag, and an "opening celebration" for the concentration camp at Dachau. These are both informative and disturbing, with almost too much happening in rapid succession to take insomewhat like our own news coverage over the past few years. Director Genevieve Bennet paces scenes swiftly, making connections to bridge the stop-action that inevitably occur while we pause to read about the arc of history. In many cases, actors for the next scene step on stage and read the headlines along with us. It is as if those characters themselves struggle to keep up with the pace of change, even from hour to hour, and need to check their current bearings in relation to the shifting world.
The actors are uniformly strong, starting, as stated above, with Kimberly Richardson's full-throttle performance Agnes. Paul de Cordova conveys Husz' transition from strident revolutionary to blunted idealist. Siddeeqah Shabazz gives a persuasive performance as Paulinka, who knows that she is not as good a person as she would like to be, but is still capable of making brave choices. Leif Jurgensen is both appealing and pitiable as Gregor, a gay man who is unable to act against the bleak future rushing in. Delta Rae Giordano's portrayal of Annabella conveys the courage required to hold on to besieged ideals. Alex Barreto Hathaway is remarkable as the mysterious visitor Gottfried Swetts, and Barbra Berlovitz sublimely blends Die Alte's self-absorption with frightening insights into the workings of the world. As Zillah, Shelby Rose Richardson delivers earnest readings, but her role is too much a device and not a genuine character, passionate in her diatribes yet without a human core.
One observation Zillah makes is trenchant. She concedes that Hitler and the holocaust were such extreme manifestations of evil, they set a gold standard, an impossible high benchmark that diminishes the horror of other atrocities, for we have seen the worst of the worst. Zillah rails against this, crying out for rage against the evils she sees seeping into national life, with no excuses. We cannot wait for our current injustices to reach that historic gold standard of evil before crying out and pushing back.
Lauren Rae Anderson's costumes evoke the feel of depression-era Berlin, while Zillah is every bit a rebel punk circa mid 1980s. Mike Wangen's lighting creates moods of intimacy, of decadence, of safety, and of fear and provides a bright glow to suggest the burning of the Reichstag. Kalen Rainbow Keir provides sound, including radio broadcasts of music from the era that is deceptively cheerful.
Red Bird made a brave decision in staging A Bright Room Called Day, for it is packed with content, both in its narrative and in its pronouncements that evil in the public sphere must be stared down. The play feels like the early Kushner work that it is. The Zillah interloper, inserting her observations from 1985, is problematic. It is at times quite talky, with characters weighing the pros and cons of the political movements they support. This can be fascinating for political theorists, perhaps less so for other audience members. Still, the forcefulness of Kushner's narrative, director Bennett's clear and steady vision, some finely honed performances, and the clear relevance to our current world make A Bright Room Called Day very worth seeing.
Red Bird Theatre's A Bright Room Called Day, through April 13, 2019, at Pillsbury House Theatre, 3501 Chicago Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. General admission - $20.00; Students - $10.00; Supporter tickets start at $40.00. For information and tickets visit redbird-theatre.com.
Playwright: Tony Kushner; Director: Genevieve Bennett; Scenic Design: Justin Spooner. Costume Design: Lauren Rae Anderson; Light Design: Mike Wangen; Sound Design: Kalen Rainbow Keir; Fight Choreography: Aaron Preusse; Stage Manager: Maria Signorelli.
Cast: Kenzi Allen (Rosa Malek), Barbara Berlovitz (Die Alte), Paul de Cordova (Vealtninc Husz), Pedro Juan Fonseca (Emil Traum), Delta Rae Giordano (Annabella Gotchling), Alex Barreto Hathaway (Gottfried Swetts), Leif Jurgensen (Gregor Bazwald), Kimberly Richardson (Agnes Eggling), Shelby Rose Richardson (Zillah Katz), Siddeeqah Shabazz (Paulinka Erdnuss).