Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Run

Every play offers a unique set of challenges to overcome. A Bright Room Called Day was no different in that respect. The use of Brechtian elements was only one of these challenges. How does one strike that delicate balance between telling an engaging narrative to an audience (who is giving up an evening to sit in a dark space) AND interrupt the narrative in a way that doesn't allow the audience to become too comfortable with what they are watching? Brecht never wanted a "passive" audience to merely sit, soak in an experience, then leave the theatre never to give much thought to the play again. He wanted to inspire an audience to action. But, one of the questions that still lingers even now is . . . what exactly did Kushner want of his audience? Can a play such as this be truly relevant to an audience in 2010?

This was never meant to be the type of play that comforted and coddled the audience so that they would leave the theatre having experienced a catharsis about a long-distant and tragic past event and feeling grateful that something like that could never happen again. Or could it? In looking back at the production and the play now, it seems that Kushner's attempt to make the play relevant is ultimately what makes it dated. Zillah's rants about Reagan and her attempts to draw parallels between that presidency and Hitler's rise to power resonated with older audience members, but not so much with the younger college-aged crowd.

Kimberly Holling gave an incredibly energetic and passionate performance in the role. The audience response to her "interruptions" of the dominant story line was generally favorable. Her Nixon impression, for example, consistently got the biggest laugh of the evening.

The presence of Zillah in this production was another interesting matter from the get-go. When I originally brought the script to the Holocaust Memorial Week committee in the fall of 2009, they responded, "Good play. I like Kushner, but can we get rid of Zillah?" In reading some of Kushner's notes included in the play's appendices, I found suggests getting rid of the character. Shrugging my shoulders I said, "Sure. Why not?" Unfortunately implied permission from the playwright is different than actual legal permission from the publishing service that controls the rights. In the end, Zillah was back in the show. Ultimately, I felt like her interruptions worked. Whether or not they made the play "immediate" in terms of applying the story to a more contemporary context, I think, is up to the individual audience member's perception. Zillah's passionate belief, however, that citizens must be vigilant in keeping an eye on the government transcends any particular period. That lesson can resonate to any generation.

Other Brechtian elements were, I felt, effective in the story. The projections, thankfully, worked in every performance. (I honestly get a little nervous about the risk of "technical difficulties" arising when powerful moments rely on a computer functioning correctly every, single time.) Throughout the performance, two large "screens" served as high-tech Brechtian placards, displaying the scene number, title, and other historical information Kushner used to locate the fictional story within a real historical time line. Hitler's rise to power was chronicled along with a series of dates, meanwhile on stage, the fictional relationships between became strained.

I never wanted to shy away from the "theatrical" in this production. I kept saying, "It's not realism." This mantra allowed us to embrace the script's more "magical" elements. The appearance of the Devil at the end of Act I or Paulinka's diva monologue were other interruptions Kushner wrote into the script. Rather than try and make them make sense as part of the plot, I wanted to highlight the moments and make them even more "weird." Within the context of the show, given the other interruptions, it made perfect sense for Paulinka to step out of the scene, bathed in a bright pink spotlight or for Herr Swetts to appear from the audience to loud orchestral music.

The most difficult moment of the play, technically and artistically was the "Epilogue" where Agnes and Die Alte's narrative collides and it becomes apparent that Die Alte is Agnes. I wanted this moment to be extremely disturbing and to really locate the fiction within a historical moment. Working with the lighting designer, Charles, I put together a slide show with some truly horrific historical imagery of the Holocaust and World War II. Charles created a disturbing sound cue that underscored the dialogue as the images flashed in quicker succession. During the scene, the characters who had left the space during the play returned in the background in reverse order and struck a signature pose, as if Agnes was watching all the people she had lost and let go of through the play. The final image was the flash of a swastika as Agnes states in a happy echo from the end of Act I, "Welcome to Germany." Blackout. Then a recording of "We'll Meet Again" came on as the houselights turned back on. Heavy handed? Perhaps. But, I felt it was ultimately effective. I wanted the audience to leave feeling disturbed, unsettled. The choice to end the show without a curtain call became obvious during tech week. Having to watch the slide show over and over again for the timing made it clear to me that the show simply could not end with applause of any kind. It just wasn't that kind of show.

The production was demanded of its actors and, honestly, they rose to the challenges the script presented to them. It was a tricky balance and I am so incredibly grateful for their willingness to work and work hard on putting on a difficult piece of material.

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