By James Wilkinson
BOX INFO: Two and a half hour, two act, production of Tony Kushner’s 1985 play, appearing September 30-October 14, 2017; Thursday-Saturday 8pm; matinee Sunday at 2pm. The Black Box Theatre at The Mosesian Center for the Arts, 21 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA 02472. www.flatearththeatre.com
There’s a moment early in Flat Earth Theatre’s production of A Bright Room Called Day that, intentional or not, strikes me as oddly prescient. The character of Agnes is attempting to write a skit that will mobilize the Communist party. She speaks the lines, “The world is perched on the brink of…the brink of…” She searches for the right word then gives up and sighs, “Shit.” Sitting in the audience, I wanted to yell out, “You have no idea…”
Tony Kushner’s play, A Bright Room Called Day, which charts the rise of the Nazis leading up to the Holocaust, has gained a recent surge in popularity (more on that later). There are two other productions of the play slated for the Boston area. No disrespect intended to those other theater companies, but it’s going to be hard for me to imagine any other production being able to top what Flat Earth Theatre has managed to do with Kushner’s text. Their production is currently running at the Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown and is one of the strongest arguments I have seen in recent memory for the use of theater as a political platform.
A Bright Room Called Day is one of Tony Kushner’s earliest plays, written in the mid-80s, a few years before his masterwork, Angels in America. In the piece you can see him beginning to play with the theatrical techniques and magical realism that he will later use to great effect in Angels. You can also trace his interest in connecting the events of history and political philosophy with the personal. It’s a play that’s wonderfully difficult to pin down and put into a particular box. Every time you think you have a handle on what it is, the play turns over. Suddenly there are new angles, new ideas for the audience to wrestle with.
The bulk of Bright Room’s plot centers on Agnes Eggling (Lindsay Eagle), a German actress, living in 1930’s Berlin with Vealtninc Husz (Isaiah Plovnick), a one-eyed Hungarian cinematographer. Their friends include actress Paulinka Erdnuss (Nancy Finn), artist Annabella Gotchling (Juliet Bowler) and Gregor Bawald (Noah Simes). This core group of characters meet to discuss and debate the politics and issues of the day as well as how to aid the German Communist party. There is some fleeting concern about the influence of the Nazi party, which has recently made small gains in the government, but surely, the characters tell each other, this will soon burn out. We only have to wait.
Even if you only have a basic understanding of twentieth century world history, you’ll know where the arc of history is heading. Our knowledge of the Nazis and what they will do once in power, hangs over the character’s heads like Damocles’ sword. The air in the theatre develops a stench of dread that accumulates with each passing scene. It almost makes you angry how flippant the characters are towards the Nazi party. But of course, with the benefit of hindsight, we know what the characters do not. The Communist party fizzles out and Hitler’s rise approaches.
Alongside this main plot, Kushner drops Zillah, (Kim Klasner), a young American woman from the 1980s, who directly addresses the audience to draw comparisons between Hitler’s actions and Ronald Reagan’s refusal to confront the growing AIDS epidemic (a timely topic in 1985, the year of Bright Room’s first production).
Director Dori A. Robinson and her team have concocted an extraordinary evening of theater with Kushner’s play. The text is overloaded with ideas about history, politics, ethics, religion, psychoanalysis, political philosophy, personal responsibility, sex, and art. At one point, the literal devil makes an appearance (when, I won’t say, just know that he’s coming….). There are so many plates spinning you expect the whole thing to come crashing down at any minute. It doesn’t. Even better, it’s a production that treats its audience members as intelligent adults and asks them to rise to its level. It argues that you can use the toolbox of theater to dramatize political argument without making the audience feel as though they are being lectured to (a feat made all the more impressive given that the Zillah character literally lectures the audience).
There is a wonderful sense of confidence in Robinson’s staging. Every move feels significant, pulling the audience through the narrative like a well-oiled machine. The cast is uniformly good and sure-footed in what they are doing. They work together so well, it seems almost wrong to single any one person out. Each builds on the energy that the others bat onto the stage. The play runs almost three hours, but I was always invested in what was happening.
It’s going to be impossible for audience members to separate the events of the play with what is happening in the country outside of the theater, not when there are literal Nazis marching in the street and frightening acts of anti-Semitism that continue into the twenty-first century. I don’t think those parallels should be ignored. I’m guessing that it’s part of the reason why this play was selected for production. However, anyone coming to the theater for an outright condemnation of President Trump’s actions (or inactions) is going to be disappointed. After all, this play was written back when Trump was still only a New York real estate developer and occasional television personality. The play isn’t about him and this production is smart enough to not make it about him. You can draw whatever comparisons to the news of today that you like, but the inclusion of the Zillah character and her diatribes against President Reagan points to a much larger and more terrifying idea: we have been here before and can be here again.
The production makes good use of Brechtian title cards detailing the historical events and setting up a context for the character’s actions. They inform us that the Nazi’s came to power with only 37% of the popular vote, that Hitler assembled his government in roughly six months. If you were to describe the horrors of the Holocaust to these characters at the start of the play, the response would most likely be, “No way. That could never happen here.” I imagine you would get the same response if you were to tell someone in the 1970’s that the American government was going to ignore thousands of gay men dying in an epidemic. We can debate if Hitler’s actions compares to Reagan’s inaction to dealing with the AIDS epidemic. The strength of this production is that it argues that the phrase “It can’t happen here” doesn’t mean anything. The terrifying truth is, it can.
A Bright Room Called Day is presented by Flat Earth Theatre. Playing at the Mosesian Center for the Arts September 30-October 14, 2017. For tickets and more information, visit Flat Earth Theatre’s website: www.flatearththeatre.com