by James Wilkinson
The Longwood Players present A Bright Room Called Day by Tony Kushner. Nov 3-11, 2017. Presented at Chelsea Theatre Works. Directed by Kaitlyn Chantry. Set Design by John Randell. Lighting Design by Erik Foxx. Costume Design by Sandy Chantry. Sound Design by Lee Neikirk. Projection Design by Sunil Doshi. Prop Designer by Kaitlyn Chantry and Kat McCorkle.
I have a friend who absolutely refuses to read a book more than once. Her reasoning is that once she knows what’s going to happen in the story, (AKA the plot), she loses interest. For her, the magic is in finding out what happens next. Personally, I’ve never been that sort of person (and have argued with her on that point many times), but her theory is one that you often find lobbed at theater companies, especially those who specialize in the classical cannon (“Why, oh why do we need to see yet another production of Hamlet?”). To those people I would say that a theater script isn’t like a novel or a movie, which remains fixed each time the viewer comes to it. A play script is more like a template or, if you like, a tool box. Even within the most precise of writers there can be a great deal of variety in how a theater director explores the possibilities the playwright lays out. As an audience member, there can be a great deal of fun in going to a new production of a play you’ve seen before and saying “How are they going to tackle this one?”
I was on this particular train of thought last weekend when I went to see The Longwood Player’s production of Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day as only a few months ago, a different Boston-area theater company tackled the same play. Getting the chance to view the two productions so close to each other was a fascinating experiment in seeing how directors can mine very different experiences from the same text.
It’s easy to see why Kushner’s play is experiencing a sudden surge in popularity. The parallels to present day events are absolutely chilling. The plot focuses on Agnes Eggling, a German actress living in 1930s Berlin just as the Nazi party is beginning to take power within the German government. Her apartment in Berlin is something of an intellectual salon, a place where her artist and activist friends meet to discuss and debate the politics of the day. We begin in January of 1932 when the Nazi party is a blip on the political scene and end in November of 1933 when Hitler has completely seized control of the government. All the while Agnes and her friends insist that the Nazi party will burn out at any moment, that the movement couldn’t possibly be as dangerous as it seems. For a present-day audience with the 20/20 hindsight of history, those claims that ‘everything will be fine’ are cringe-inducing. We know just how badly this is going to turn out. This, I think, is part of Kushner’s aim. Not to provide a history lesson but to expose just quickly and easily the steel trap of fascism can be set, never truly seen until the jaws close around you.
I won’t make direct comparisons between the two productions of A Bright Room Called Day. Each is its own work of art and deserves to be considered on its own terms. So what then does this production do?
Director Kaitlyn Chantry and her team have put in a great deal of work trying to pull the audience into the world of the play. In case you had any doubts about how the company feels the events of the play connect to the present day, you only have to look as far as the poster where you’ll find a picture of President Trump sitting next to portraits of Hitler and Reagan. Set Designer John Randell has built a playing space that puts the audience members right in the middle of Agnes’ apartment. You enter through a large front door to a room lined with period armchairs and sofas to sit on. It’s an immersive set that perhaps goes a step too far for my taste. Several audience members will find themselves literally in the action of the play, sitting next to Agnes’ kitchen sink, on her chaise lounge or even at her kitchen table, inches away from the actors. While I’m sure the view was great for those particular audience members, for the rest of us, it does make it hard to buy into the scene when an audience member is awkwardly shuffling or checking his program between two actors who are trying to talk to each other.
This is a production with both of its feet very much planted firmly on the ground. Kushner’s text plays with moments of magical realism and poetry which here are mostly tempered down in favor of more of a kitchen-sink naturalism. For instance, one character, written as a kind of specter haunting Agnes’ apartment, here is played more as an odd woman who keeps wandering in. The direction in tone is an interesting choice to make as it helps reinforce the idea that yes, these historical events really did happen and they could happen again. But I can’t help but feel that something is lost by not embracing the poetry of Kushner’s play. This was one of Kushner’s first plays, and it shows in how he just keeps throwing new ideas into the pot. There’s a rush of energy to the words that comes from a young playwright trying to reach for the stars. Here, a sense of dread about the surrounding Nazi threat never quite materializes. Thankfully there’s a very fine cast in place here who are engaged and keep the engine of the play moving forward. Special mention has to go to Evelyn Holley who digs in to find a good deal of humor as the neurotic actress Paulinka, Also to Brooke Casanova as Agnes, who has the difficult job of playing a woman who piece by piece loses everything around her.
If you’ve never seen Kushner’s play before, I highly recommend you see this production. Despite some of my reservations about some of the production’s choices, it’s a perfectly competent and enjoyable production. It provides a fascinating history lesson into one of the darkest times in human history. This is a story we tell ourselves because it’s important to remember. The price we pay for forgetting the lessons of history is dangerously high. One of the gifts of theatre like this is that it gives us the space to examine who we were and to ask who we plan on becoming.
The Longwood Player’s production of A Bright Room Called Day runs at Chelsea Theater Works November 3-11, 2017. For tickets and more information, visit their website www.longwoodplayers.org