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BEATE HEIN BENNETT
Presented in repertory at Theater for the New City
155 First Avenue, New York, NY (at E. 10th Street)
“Mein Kampf” May 4 & 5 @ 8PM; Sat May 6 @ 3 & 8 PM; Sun May 14 @ 3 PM;
Tues – Fri, May 16 – 19 @ 8 PM
“Jubilee” Wed – Sat May 10 – 13 @ 8 PM; Sat May 20 @ 3 & 8 PM;
Sun May 21 @ 3 PM
$ 18 general admission; SmartTix @ 212-868-4444; or visit www.smarttix.com or www.taboriproject.org or www.theaterforthenewcity.net
“Mein Kampf” reviewed by Beate Hein Bennett, May 4, 2017
MeinKampf: AndreaLynnGreen, JohnFreda. Photo by Michael E Mason.
Anybody who needs a good dose of political theatre where laughter prevails over horror and satire unmasks all sentimental claims of glory must make their way to Tabori. One of the great twentieth century satirists in the theater, George Tabori was a true world citizen unafraid to hold his sharp lens over the most egregious political misdeeds and lies, finding “in the heart of each joke hides a little holocaust.” And extracting from the Holocaust, a clown’s ghoulish laughter! What a field day he would have now, if he were still among us!
George Tabori (1914-2007) was born in Budapest, the son of a renowned journalist. He led a peripatetic life, moving to Berlin in 1932 on the eve of Hitler’s election, back to Hungary in 1935, thence to England to work for the BBC and during the war as a British intelligence agent in the Middle East. Having moved in 1947 to the US, he worked in L.A. as a script writer for Hitchcock, Losey, et al. and finally came to New York. He befriended Elia Kazan who directed his play “Flight into Egypt” in 1952 but whose betrayal of names to the HUAC fractured their friendship forever. His father and many of his relatives perished in Auschwitz but his mother miraculously survived. In the 50s and 60s Tabori worked on and off Broadway as a playwright and director. Wynne Handman, the progressive director of The American Place Theatre courageously produced his most aggressive political plays, premiering “Pinkville” in1970 about the MyLai Massacre which garnered great success in Berlin in 1971. After that Tabori worked as a director and playwright primarily in Germany and Austria; even though he wrote his plays in English, the New York stage has largely ignored him for the past decades.
“Mein Kampf” premiered in 1987 in Vienna at the Akademietheater. It is a wicked farce that imaginatively combines an archetypal cast of characters in a very real place and time. The play is set in a Viennese flophouse around 1910-12. The first two flophouse denizens we meet are Herzl, a Jewish bible seller, an homage of sorts to Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, a secular brand of Jewish nationalism, and Lobkowitz, a cook who calls himself God. They enjoy some lively Talmudic sparring when a young man enters, at first unnoticed by them, who breaks into their conversation, just as they are trying to figure out a good title for Herzl’s projected book of memoirs and arrive at—who would guess-- “Mein Kampf” as the best choice. The young intruder is Hitler who has just arrived in Vienna with his art portfolio in the hopes of being accepted at the art academy which (as we know) rejects him. He is the third lodger. What follows in the next two hours is an incredible romp through youthful Hitlerian megalomania, organic Jewish gallows humor, and glosses of history and culture. The satire gets ever wilder and darker until the figure of Death appears in the guise of an elegant elderly lady. In between there are hilarious scenes, such as Herzl trying to teach Hitler manners, Herzl having an almost lyrical relationship with a peculiar version of the arch symbol of German maidenhood in the figure of Gretchen, but we all know how the farce will end-- in a real “dance of death”-- here literally a tango of Hitler and Lady Death.
Director Manfred Bormann created a fast-paced performance spiced with humor of character and situation; one example: Herzl trims Hitler’s bounteous moustache to its familiar skimpy square. Bormann crafts each scene with rhythm and knows how to accent the poignancy of a retort. (Tabori loves to sprinkle clever retorts throughout the text). He guides an excellent cast through this cavalcade of “jest, satire, and deep irony” to use the title of a 19th century farce by J.C. Grabbe. Jon Freda is a superb Herzl-- sly, funny, profound, and endearing. Omri Kadim plays young Hitler with incredible physical intensity and acrobatic grace—his rhetorical absurdities are delivered at breakneck speed yet fully plumbed for their grotesque statements. G.W. Reed plays Lobkowitz/God as the bumbling and stout friend and foil to Herzl with warmth and irony. Andrea Lynn Green musters a Lolitaish Gretchen with a mix of red-maned pubescent eroticism and charming innocence. Jess Burchfield plays a diabolical Himmlisch, a clear reference to Himmler, Hitler’s deputy who implemented the Holocaust. Cordis Heard presents an elegant chain-smoking late imperial Viennese Frau Death who pretends to be a bit of a scatterbrain.
The flophouse, designed by Matthew S. Crane was built with all the depressing detail of such a “lower depth” abode: peeling moist walls, one dirty window high up, an iron pot-belly stove/oven, and three cots, at each foot a suitcase with the lodger’s belongings. Alex Bartenieff’s lighting design subtly changed from warm to cold as needed and underscored the gradually threatening atmosphere. Tabori’s longtime collaborator, the composer Stanley Walden, had created a score that alluded to Jewish motifs, including the Kaddish. Sarah Zinn clothed the characters in costumes appropriate to their station in life and their poverty, except for Death’s elegant black gown and stylish hat evocative of the period.
It is to Manfred Bormann’s credit to bring Tabori back to the New York theatre scene with two plays. On April 26, a panel discussion at the Museum of Jewish Heritage brought together such luminaries as Mr. Tabori’s daughter, Lena Tabori, Stanley Walden, the director/producer Wynne Handman, the actor Peter Malone, and Prof. Jonathan Kalb, to speak of his work and character with great fondness and personal insight. Perhaps a revival of this artist’s work is in the offing—the time is ripe!
May 10 – May 21
Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue (at E. 10th Str.)
Presented by B&R Productions
May 10, 11, 12, 13 @ 8 PM, May 20 @ 3 and 8 PM, May 21 @ 3 PM
$18 general admission; SmartTix @ 212-868-4444 or www.smarttix.com
or visit www.taboriproject.org or www.theaterforthenewcity.net
Reviewed by Beate Hein Bennett, May 10, 2017
“Jubilee” is the second play of the “Two by Tabori” program offered in repertory at TNC. While “Mein Kampf” is a farcical thought experiment or extended joke that pitches a young failed art student by the name of Adolf Hitler against two Jewish clowns by the name of Herzl and Lobkowitz, both names resonant of history—Herzl recalling Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism and Lobkowitz, the name of a prominent old Czech aristocratic dynasty and castle in Prague—“Jubilee” is a play that resonates with pain despite its grimly humorous passages. In “Mein Kampf” Tabori has Lobkowitz state at the end: “In the heart of each joke hides a little holocaust.” It is a weighty question whether the actual Holocaust should be treated as a joke, and I am sure, many would argue against such a treatment; however, satire has always used gallows humor as a way to defrock false sanctimoniousness and hypocritical stances of mild regret. In “Jubilee” Tabori uses both gallows humor and pathos to deal with the horror of the Holocaust itself and the historical inheritance of social relationships that are fraught with conflicts over guilt and the impossibility of compensation.
Jubilee : JeffBurchfield and DerrickPeterson. Photo by Michael E Mason.
For the open stage space of the Cino Theater set designer Mar Urrestarazu designed a very simple evocative graveyard with nameless tombstones, a lost bouquet of flowers, autumn leaves on the ground, a simple bench in the middle, a brick wall in the back---in a typewritten note from 1983, the year of the play’s premiere, Tabori mentions “a graveyard on the Rhein, today, where the dead are doomed to remember what they would rather forget. Which may be the 8th circle of hell.” The space is timeless, the lighting by Alexander Bartenieff intimates first a late fall afternoon and then drops into foggy night while Wagnerian music reaches a crescendo. A young man in a black leather coat rushes in and defaces the tombstones with slogans and swastikas when suddenly two men pop out of their graves. One corrects him: “’Jew-dog’ with a hyphen, boy” and “the cross is also wrong. Hook’s missing on the top side left.” The young man runs off in a panic. Thus begins the drama of recovering the individual fates of the victims buried here, a process that is not bounded by time because their past lives are intertwined with the present— the proverbial mutual haunting of past and present.
The young man, Juergen, a Neo-Nazi punk belongs to the present which perpetuates the old vicious anti-Semitism and won’t even let the dead alone. David Knowle, a handsome young man, plays him full of truculent irrational resentment and bluster to the point of becoming ridiculous yet palpably dangerous. He is countered by the inhabitants of the graves. First there is Arnold Stern, a musician and Wagner aficionado who corrects his graffiti, played by G.W. Reed with the typical characteristic of the educated German Jew, warmly tolerant, cultivated and proper, but suffering the ultimate betrayal of his credulity in German culture. Cordis Heard plays his wife, Lotte Stern; they revisit their courting days with contrasting memories of the same events—Ms. Heard’s slightly sharp-tongued but generous humor is a good foil to Mr. Reed’s romantic reminiscences. Both actors succeed in playing the quick-changes in tone from ironic to quietly tragic. A fascinating character is Mitzi, the young spastic niece of the Sterns, who was enamored with her schoolmate Juergen. His hateful action causes her premature death by suicide. Andrea Lynn Green imbues Mitzi with a magical quality of innocence and awareness. She also takes on the voices of absent victims and perpetrators: she embodies the voices of small children who were hanged in Auschwitz during the last days of the Holocaust and those of their torturers. It is a harrowing scene where the authentic past comes alive in the narration and the theatrically imaginative rendering. Ms. Green’s clear soprano also underscores many scenes with her haunting “Ich weiss nicht was soll es bedeuten, dass ich so traurig bin,” one of the best-known German songs [I don’t know what it means that I am so sad…]. She also sings matter-of-factly some of the most horrific concentration camp ditties which belong to the bad Jewish jokes that Tabori periodically incorporates in the play.
The remaining three characters (and actors) must be mentioned as they complete the cast. The gay couple Otto, a hairdresser, played by Jeff Burchfield with a dangerous edge and sharp wit and Helmut, his wife, played by Derrick Peterson with a neurotic sensitivity mixed with clear-sighted courage. Both are victims of present-day phobic brutality. Helmut is also Juergen’s uncle; in one horrific scene, Juergen forces him to act as his (Juergen’s) father and narrate the atrocities he committed as a soldier in WWII. Another character is the grave digger Wumpf, played by Robert Eigen in tone reminiscent of the grave digger in “Hamlet.” Juergen comes to the graveyard as Wumpf is digging Mitzi’s grave and brings up a skull. Tabori’s homage to an emblematic scene is full of irony, as Juergen—alas, poor Mitzi-- contemplates the skull “alone with the dead.” However, just as we might think that Juergen feels some regret or reversal of attitude, the next scene has him abuse Helmut and the other dead with vicious cold attacks simply “for the fun of it,” as he claims.
With “Jubilee” Tabori casts a cold unalloyed look at how the present once again blows up and buries the past in a confusion of violence – “WHAM BAM AND WHIZZ” –while one jubilee after another is meant to honor the dead and correct the national memory. Manfred Bormann directed this play at TNC in 2013; with this re-visitation and juxtaposition with “Mein Kampf,” he has guided an excellent cast through a very difficult journey that demands considerable psychic and physical discipline but provides an audience with an occasion to think about the repercussions of one’s political heritage.
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