Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Fabulous Invalid Clings To Life

The plot of 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind rests on a curious hypothesis:  The two most common denominators in the universe are music and mathematics. If there is any hope of communicating with extraterrestrials, it's best to strip away religion, politics, all of the usual excuses for making war, and stick to the diatonic scale.

While many have sought to label the theatrical art form as "a fabulous invalid," it's amazing how effective that invalid can be at explaining complex situations, disarming people's defenses and, in a very short time, changing people's minds. As long as one person is capable of performing and another is capable of reacting, theatre will never die.

In the past 50 years, cultural exchange programs have allowed artists, athletes, and students to travel and work abroad as a means of fostering greater understanding and building more stable relations between nations. Whether such cultural exchanges have involved symphony orchestras, theatre companies, or an ensemble of musicians acting as ambassadors for the arts, global friendships were built around common artistic interests.

These exchanges also led to some curious forms of cross-pollination. In 1989, when I accompanied the Houston Grand Opera's production of Show Boat to the Middle East (where it participated in the inaugural season of the new Cairo Opera House), the cultural exchange was facilitated by the joint efforts of the United States Information Agency (USIA), Egypt's Ministry of Culture, and Marriott Hotels & Resorts.

The Cairo Opera House was inaugurated on October 10, 1988

What did the Marriott Hotels have to do with this?  In addition to hosting Show Boat's cast, crew, and key administrative staff from the Houston Grand Opera, there was an exchange of chefs and cuisines between the Marriotts in Texas and Egypt.  Upon entering the hotel's casual restaurant on my first day in Cairo, I was greeted by an Egyptian waiter wearing a red and white Western-style gingham shirt, a bolo tie, and a cowboy hat who cautiously said "Hello, my name is Said. Would you like to order fajitas today?"

I'm always fascinated at how the arts are employed to bridge roiling chasms of misunderstanding and poor logic. Two recent presentations allowed me to watch the process take place in dramatic and comedic modes.

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While all kinds of music can bring people together, a particular strain of Viennese operetta weaves an exceptional web of warmth. In the following video clip, soprano Anna Moffo sings a popular aria from Franz Lehar's 1934 operetta, Giudita.

The music from Johann Strauss, Jr.'s operettas achieved great popularity throughout Europe. In the following video clip, soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf sings the beloved waltz from Strauss's Wiener Blut (which received its world premiere on October 26, 1899, some five months after the composer's death).

First performed in 1873, the Wiener Blut Waltz plays a crucial role in Elisabeth Scharang's new Holocaust film entitled In Another Lifetime (also known as Maybe In Another Life). The movie begins in the final days of World War II as a bomber pilot tosses a candy wrapper from his cockpit window. The paper lands close to a group of 20 hungry, exhausted Hungarian Jews on their death march to a concentration camp. As the film's production notes explain:
"The death marches of the Hungarian Jews right through the back provinces of Austria in the spring of 1945 form the historical background of the film. The security forces in the German Wehrmacht were seeking shelter from the approaching Red Army and transferring the Jews to village policemen and the Volkssturm (the last ditch defence in WW II). They were herded through the Austrian villages right into the first days of peace in the beginning of May 1945. Their destination was the concentration camp Mauthausen. How the rural population acted towards the Jews depended on each one’s personal character. One could no longer act on the authority of the so-called superior orders. And so there were examples of greatest willingness to help and evidence of the greatest brutality and cruelty towards the exhausted Jews."

Shortly into the film, a Jew commits suicide by slowly walking away from the group, knowing that he will be shot to death by a German SS officer. With the Germans' usually strict chain of command broken, the Jews are shepherded into a barn owned by Stefan Fasching (Johannes Krisch).  Among the tired Jews are:
A group of Hungarian Jews on a death March finds themselves
stranded in a small village in Austria at the end of World War II

Meanwhile, German officers have taken over the home of the elderly Jakob (Kálmán Koblicska) and Hannah König (Ildikó Dobos). The confused, young. and exhausted SS Oberscharführer Hans Schöndorf (Alexander Meile) only wants to listen to recordings on the König's gramophone.

Most of the male villagers are horrified to have a group of Jews in their midst.  Werner Springenschmied (August Schmölzer), thinks nothing of using Fasching's barn and its human contents for rifle practice. The town constable (Rainer Egger) only wants to make sure that his body count is correct. Young Edi Kropfitsch (Prince Mario), an unquestioning Hitler youth, is curious about the Jews but doesn't know what to do.

Fasching is irate that he must house the Jews in his barn until the Germans receive new orders.  However, his wife, Traudl (Ursula Strauss), long ago lost patience with the war and its impact on their family. Before the war started, the Faschings used to enjoy making music together. Traudl played the zither, Stefan the accordion, and their son (who was killed in action) proudly took on the role of Barrabas in the annual passion play.

Thomas Fränzel and Rafael Goldwaser are two of
the Jews in In Another Lifetime

The family's piano, zither, and accordion are now buried under the hay in the Fasching's barn. Because they have been hidden there to prevent their discovery by the Russians, the musical instruments are bringing joy to no one. Neither is the case of beer that Traudl has wisely hidden from her emotionally volatile husband.

Ironically, it is the Faschings' maid, Poldi Schrabacher (Franziska Singer), who breaks the ice. Poldi naively approaches the Jews with a picture of her missing boyfriend (an SS officer), and asks if any of them might have seen him in Hungary. Gandolf explains that he is an opera singer and suggests that it might help lift everyone's spirits if he and his friends could put on a private performance of Weiner Blut for the Faschings in their barn. (Since Irving Berlin's hit musical, Annie Get Your Gun, didn't receive its Broadway premiere until May 16, 1946, nobody in this film sings "There's No Business Like Shoah Business.")

Poldi (Franzosla Singer) and Traudl (Ursula Strauss)

Poldi goes off in search of costumes. Her curiosity about the Jews sparks Traudl's compassion and soon, along with Poldi, she is feeding soup and bread to Gandolf and his starving friends. Upon discovering what his wife is up to, Stefan initially erupts in anger, horrified that he should be responsible for feeding the detested Jews. But Traudl will not tolerate any more of her husband's dysfunctional behavior.  After surprising the Jews with a demonstration of his musical skills, Stefan leaves the barn and pulls together the tools with which to  create a spotlight for the upcoming performance of Wiener Blut.

Adapted by Peter Turrini from his stage play, Scharang's film is beautifully directed with carefully underplayed performances coming from her cast. Jean-Claude Larrieu's somber cinematography captures the isolation of the tiny Austrian village and the futility of the situation. Even the news of Hitler's death can't stop In Another Lifetime from ending on a tragic note. Scharing's silent epilogue, as an old villager prepares herself a cup of tea, speaks volumes.

In Another Lifetime is a deeply moving experience which should not be considered as "just another Holocaust film." Here's the trailer:

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Over in Berkeley, the Shotgun Players are performing their annual free summer play in John Hinkel Park. Written by Jeff Raz and directed by Sabrina Klein, this year's new show is entitled The Road to Hades. While it is an extremely high spirited affair, the writing often gets bogged down in trying to be a bit too clever while attempting to tie too many loose ends together.

As Paganus, Ben Euphrat warms up the audience in John Hinkel Park
 (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Oddly enough, what starts off with great promise, feeling like a better version of the kind of anti-war plays produced by the San Francisco Mime Troupe, after intermission seems to fall apart at the seams. In one of those odd spontaneous moments that can make live theatre priceless, it seemed as if the action had suddenly been switched to a scene from 1962's hit musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

In that show, a befuddled old man named Erronious has been ordered to walk "seven times around the seven hills of Rome" in order to remove a curse that has quickly (and most conveniently) been laid upon his house by a soothsayer (Pseudolus in disguise). In the middle of a tense scene, Erronious enters and slowly starts to cross the stage. As he reaches center stage, he turns to the audience and exults "Second time around!" before exiting into the wings.

At the performance I attended of The Road to Hades, a confused hiker calmly strolled down a leafy park path only to find himself in the middle of a group of Greek gods and musicians. He was gently escorted up another path and disappeared into the foliage as the play continued.

Raz's concept is simple. Zeus has decided to downgrade Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, beauty, and sexuality, from her position as a guardian of peace. To find a replacement, he has sent Ares (John Mercer) and Hermes (Ryan O'Donnell) down to Hades to seek a likely candidate. Having heard of their impending arrival, the dead Aristophanes (Jeff Raz) and his dead troupe of actors (who were all killed in the middle of a performance) have been preparing to greet the two gods.

Hermes (Ryan O'Donnell) and Ares (John Mercer) Photo by: Jessica Palopoli

Aristophanes sees this as a perfect opportunity to take over the role of peacemaker, forcefully arguing that only playwrights and artists are qualified to bring peace to the world. What he's really hoping for is to be made into a god which, as he eventually learns, is not how things work.

Meanwhile, Aphrodite (Velina Brown), has other plans in mind. Like many women, she is tired of war and has figured out a way to truly bring peace to the world. Taking a clue from a play written by Aristophanes (Lysistrata), she wants women to withhold the blessings of their sexuality from men. Her theory is that if she can convert men from a lifestyle of to making war to one of making love, peace will be the happy result.

Velina Brown as Aphrodite (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

In order to accomplish her goal, Aphrodite insists that the ragged corpses who comprise Aristophanes's theatre troupe get a day's pass to visit earth and outfit themselves with sexy new clothes. As the second act begins, the gods and actors find themselves at a Walmart type of discount store, where the women happily shop for new wardrobes while Ares and Hermes head for the departments that sell uniforms and ammunition.

Aphrodite attempts to have Ares walk a mile in a woman's footsteps, but Raz's script soon starts to fall apart. Despite such appealing supporting actors as Johannes Mager (the show's composer who also plays trombone) Ben EuphratTristan Cunningham, and Eli Wirtschafter, all of Raz's circus skills can't seem to repave The Road to Hades.

It's not like the talented cast doesn't try their hardest to entertain people. While there is plenty of juggling, dancing, and lots of good-natured fart jokes to entertain the crowd, Raz's anti-war script struggles much too hard to stretch out the time. In their program note, Raz and Klein write:
"The earliest surviving examples of our most beloved comic gags are found in Aristophanes: men dressed as women, fart and poop jokes, topical political humor, wild obscenities, drunken orgies. From Plautus to Moliere and Shakespeare to The Three Stooges and Saturday Night Live to Fellini, not much new has been invented for comedy that can't be found in Aristophanes's plays.

With all the bits and jokes, Aristophanes never forgot he was making theatre -- his theatrical consciousness plays out in jokes directly with the audience, parodies on other playwrights, or plays within plays. Historically, critical views of Aristophanes fluctuate wildly between critique that he'd do anything for a laugh and therefore didn't actually care about politics, to critique that he used (often very dirty) jokes to cover his political views and make them palatable to a wider audience.

Is he a clown or is he serious? For us, the answer is 'yes.' He is a clown and he is serious. His times feel awfully familiar to us: war without end, wild sexual and scatological humor in mainstream culture, a world that seems to have been abandoned by the gods -- ancient Athens and modern America. trying to talk about war and its relatives -- torture, rape, mutilation, civilian suffering -- with the tools of physical comedy -- circus, Commedial dell'Arte, music, dance (all ways of playing out conflict without pain) -- links Aristophanes and us.

As theatre artists, we know we can't sit silently by as if all were well, but we aren't sure what it is we should be doing. We looked to Aristophanes for hints on how to use our strongest comic tools to celebrate the power of playing."

Performances of The Road to Hades continue on weekend afternoons through Sunday, September 11. Here's the trailer:

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