What responsibility does the common man or woman have in a time of political and societal upheaval? More specifically, what is the role of the artist, or the intellectual, who may be less directly involved in politics, yet possibly more capable of perceiving the ramifications of current events?
Such questions are bandied about a lot these days, and are among the core themes of the Tony Kushner-penned drama A Bright Room Called Day, currently running at Trustus Theatre. An early work by the author, the play was written in 1985 as a protest over Reagan-era policies, using the rise of Nazi Germany as a metaphor. Whatever one’s politics or level of activism, the parallels drawn with today are thought-provoking, and indeed disturbing.
The central storyline follows a group of left-leaning Berlin artists in 1932 and early 1933 who see Fascism as a “bad collage” of rehashed political ideas from assorted movements, designed to appeal to an unhappy populace looking for “a fatherly boot heel to lick.”
Working actress Agnes (Krista Foster) is gently mocked as “a Marxist who has never read Marx,” while rising screen star Paulinka (Jennifer Hill) seems attracted to the German version of Communism because it’s the hip and trendy thing to do. Painter Annabella (Becky Hunter) uses her talent to design posters to advance the cause, noting that middle class professionals, however enlightened, will never truly understand the plight of the working class. Good-natured Baz (Jonathan Monk) is sympathetic to the left, but still manages to find hunky Nazis to hook up with on the down-low. Passionate and principled cinematographer Vealtninc (Alex Smith) senses the imminent threat more acutely, having lived through unrest in his native Hungary.
These characters’ lives play out as did those of most of their real-life peers, with some planning escape to another country, while others fear leaving their homeland, no matter how nightmarish it becomes.
Their scenes alternate with vignettes featuring Zillah (Avery Bateman), an American in the mid-’80s who revels in conspiracy theories — the letters in “Ronald Wilson Reagan” numbering 666 for example. Kushner often incorporates fantastical elements into his works to illustrate a point; here, it’s an appearance by the Devil himself (Paul Kaufman). Or it could just be a parlor trick staged by Vealtninc, or an effect from one of his films, or an allegorical moment allowing the audience to see the entry of pure evil into commonplace German society.
I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that whether or not the events that transpire are actually taking place, each character represents a much broader archetype. It’s often said that there are no small roles, and Frederic Powers and Mary Miles as bickering Communist Party functionaries are proof; their comic squabbles over whether Germany should follow the lead of Russia, or chart its own path for workers’ liberation, become increasingly agitated and improbable. Yet their bickering serves to illustrate the internal conflict among those who might otherwise have opposed Hitler more effectively, leading me to see the entire play as an allegory, possibly playing out in the American Zillah’s mind, with the timid Agnes representing Germany itself, and a creepy old lady (Elena Martinez-Vidal) perhaps representing the nation’s past, its future, or Agnes herself if she refused to take a stronger stand. Or maybe not — everything that transpires on stage is open to multiple interpretations, even if the overarching message is painfully clear.
Director Erin Wilson’s cast committed themselves thoroughly to their roles on opening night. Kaufman smoldered with urbane menace as the mysterious visitor, while Bateman got laughs with her fervent if somewhat scatterbrained activism. Hill sustained a self-centered and histrionic persona while remaining sympathetic, and Smith captured the internal turmoil of a jaded Trotskyite who has seen events play out similarly before. Forster impressed me most, depicting the playful coquettishness that Agnes has maintained in her acting career and her social life, then shifting to increasing vulnerability and pathos during the plot’s darker turns.
And designs for costumes, sound, lighting and set were all up to the theater’s usual high standards.
With terms like “Hitler” and “Nazi” and “Communist” tossed around freely on cable news and in political discourse, this play is even timelier now than when it debuted. Yet Kushner was still developing his craft and his narrative style when he wrote Bright Room, and some may find the blurred lines between fantasy, reality and allegory more challenging than anticipated, or desired. With intermission, the performance runs nearly three hours, and I must confess that I would have preferred a straightforward, two-hour variation in which the dreamlike components were discarded, focusing instead on the fates of the hapless Berliners.
Still, the importance of the material, and the frightening parallels between the characters’ era and our own, make this production a provocative, illuminating and ultimately rewarding experience.
What: A Bright Room Called Day
Where: Trustus Theatre, 520 Lady St.
When: Through Feb. 3
Price: $25 Thursdays and Sundays; $28 Fridays and Saturdays; $20 students; group discounts available
More: 803-254-9732, trustus.org