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by Lucy Komisar

Photo from 'Race'
Jenny Bacon Warns Stephen Barker Turner Against the Nazis in Bruckner's "Race." Photo by Dixie Sheridan.
Contents: March 4, 2001:
(2)"Force Continuum"
(3)"The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith"

by Ferdinand Bruckner, adapted and directed by Barry Edelstein
Produced by Classic Stage Company
136 East 13 Street
Opened February 19, 2001
Closes March 11, 2001
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar February 17, 2001
Symbolic caricatures of Nazi Germany parade through Ferdinand Bruckner's fascinating, eerie play as it forcefully captures the evil and naivete, the opportunism and gullibility and finally the weakness and strength of character that characterized the players and victims of that perfidious time.

Remarkably, Bruckner, the pen name of Theodor Tagger, a leading Austrian playwright, wrote this early in the Nazi era, in the summer of 1933, just after the election of Hitler. A Jew, he had escaped from Berlin to Vienna, then to Paris. The play, produced that year in Zurich, was the first major literary work to warn against the Holocaust.

Classic Stage Company artistic director Barry Edelstein in his powerful staging mixes elements of realism and surrealism, filling out Bruckner's impressionistic, melodramatic narrative, which is a political statement more than a persuasive story.

The production is set off by Jan Hartley's compelling projections that locate the play in unambiguous reality as they move from the Rhine hills, to the banks of the river, the town, a crowd at a mass rally, and a street of apartment buildings. Later we see Jewish shops defaced with Nazi stickers and walls of giant Nazi posters.

The protagonists are medical students, Germany's most intelligent and privileged. Tessow (Tommy Schrider) tries to get Peter (Stephen Barker Turner) to join the Nazi party, in spite of the fact that they had been a threesome of friends with Nathan (Jeremy Shamos), who is Jewish, and Peter is in love with another Jew, Helene (Jenny Bacon). Tessow has been overwhelmed by the Nazis' promise of glory and decides, "What good is reason? The only thing that the matters is faith."

Tessow is clearly a fool, but why has Peter Karlanner changed so quickly from a sensitive liberal into a storm-trooper? His transformation is a device to represent "good Germans" who turned away from decency. Both Peter and Tessow seem to recognize they are deluded. "I drank a potion and woke up a different man" and "Now I'm in, so I stay," they say.

It's easier to figure out Hans Hinz Rosloh (C.J. Wilson), the jackbooted demagogue who has lagged in medical school for 14 terms and sees the Nazis as a way to advance. There is considerable irony when Rosloh orders his troops to "take law students, philosophers, education majors, and grad students" to attack Jewish shops. It is a condemnation of the debasement of German culture.

And what of the Jews Bruckner left behind? Nathan Siegelmann seems a realistic character, representing those who want to assimilate but find out too late that "we get on their nerves, they get angry." At first his faith in humanity makes it impossible for him to hide; then that faith collapses.

The playwright is critical of the rich merchant, Helene's father, A. Marx (Ronald Guttman), the name perhaps ironic, who thinks he can finesse the Nazis through his economic position. He's in the soap business and lauds Germany as "the most hygienic country in the world." Bruckner couldn't have known in 1933 how cruelly ironic that would be.

Helene is Bruckner's stand-in and ideal, the German intellectual, a non-practicing Jew and a social democrat who sees clearly what is happening. She challenges Peter when he insists that true passion is superior to rationale thinking. He refuses to listen to her warning that "there is a storm breaking over all of Germany.. It's a huge storm and we're like leaves .both of us." She says, "I thought these men were from another world, but they are you."

This is not a naturalistic story, but an exile's cry of rage and betrayal against those who represented the best in his culture. It is an examination of the fear and desire to be part of the pack that that made schoolteachers espouse biological racialism. The beer hall scene of a teacher prattling about skull sizes and a child praising Hitler is chilling. Peter is a complex figure, symbolic of the Germans who failed Germany by not strengthening its weak democracy.

The cast is excellent, especially Turner as the confused, distraught Peter and Bacon as the perceptive, prescient Helene. Edelstein suffuses the work with tension as it exposes the strengths and weaknesses of the characters and moves toward the inexorable tragedy.

The play was presented in Zurich in November 1933; by the third evening, there was organized hooting and attacks in a local newspaper, but audience applause drowned out the disrupters. The following year, it was staged in Paris, Philadelphia, Lodz, Poland and Buenos Aires, but it didn't reach proto-Nazi Vienna till 1951. Bruckner's books were banned and burned, and he fled to exile in New York, where he lived for 12 years.

"Force Continuum"
by Kia Corthron, directed by Michael John Garces
Produced by Atlantic Theater Company
336 West 20 Street
http://www.telecharge.com/frame.pl?Target=showmiddle&Event=AATCFC&Modifier=0 01&Source=A81
Opened February 8, 2001
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar February 3, 2001
Kia Corthron's play about police brutality and three generations of cops in a black family declares that even idealistic black police get pulled into and victimized by the violence that suffuses the department.

But for all the violence that is depicted, the structure and development of the play is so static, that the vignettes stop action instead of express it.

Grandfather (David Fonteno), a retired housing authority cop, explains that there's a continuum of violence from verbal persuasion to unarmed physical force, mace, batons, stun guns, karate choke holds and finally deadly force. But cops jump to the end "way too soon."

He extols community policing as a way to serve effectively and humanely. He tries to pass his message on to grandsons Dece (Chad Coleman), a 24-year-old rookie, and his older brother (Sean Squire), who are policemen, too.

They live in a community that doesn't like cops. Dece's white partner Flip (Chris McGarry) gets out to the suburbs as soon as he can, and Dece says he'd like to put away some more white boys so he didn't feel like such a pariah. But having local cops in the neighborhood doesn't seem to make a difference, or maybe Corthron is saying that they are corrupted by the white outsiders. We see it all happen.

One shooting victim is an artist "wielding" a paintbrush. An asthmatic woman sleeping in her car after working two shifts reacts with half-dazed hostility to cops that accost her and is doused with pepper spray and held to the ground so she can't breathe. There's a dramatic moment with real power when an official of the Policemen's Benevolent Association briefs two cops on how to avoid punishment for their excessive force by "testalying."

Such events are in the news with sickening regularity, but director Michael John Garces doesn't infuse them here with a sense of reality. Instead, they seem carried out by rote. Some of the dialogue is not realistic, either. Dece's exposition at the cops' bar is not how anyone talks. The language doesn't work either as poetry or stream of consciousness.

Chad Coleman is persuasive as the troubled Dece, Jordan Lage is good as the police lawyer, and Sean Square is funny in one of his multiple roles as the book-selling drug dealer.

The play is sometimes poetic, with characters speaking in strophes instead of sentences, and sometimes seems like an episode of a TV drama. In the end, in spite of some good performances, the events seem like unfinished sketches; they don't persuade or connect. The incidents they enact might make a good TV cops show, but need more depth on a live stage.

"The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith"
by Angelo Parra, directed by Joe Brancato
Produced by The Melting Pot Theatre
Theatre 3, 311 West 43 Street
Opened February 1, 2001
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar January 29, 2001
NEW YORK - Miche Braden appears as jazz singer Bessie Smith as if she were dropping by an entertainer's "buffet flat," an after-hours apartment where they could grab a snack, perform for each other and let their hair down. The result is a cabaret act in which Braden belts out Smith's most famous songs while ruminating about her life. She approximates Smith's verve, style, guts, sassiness and vulgarity but not, alas, her voice, which has lots of power and edgy wildness, but not much melody.

Still, it's an appealing show with Braden in marceled hair, red velvet cocktail dress and white mink sleeveless jacket of the kind that's clearly for show, not warmth. She's backed up by Terry Walker as Pickle, her long-time friend and accompanist, and Jimmy Hankins on bass and Pierre Andre on sax.

It's 1937 in Memphis. She sashays around the apartment, with its leopard-skin covered chair and sideboard with food, singing her biggest hits. They included were "St Louis Blues," from the movie she starred in and "When You're Down and Out."

Smith got into the business and made it big in 1923 with "Downhearted," a song that sold 780,000 for Columbia Records. But neither her personal nor business life was easy, but she was feisty and told both her hard-drinking, womanizing husband and segregationist theater managers where to get off. When told to go to back door of a performance place, she replies, "Rules is rules and fools is fools and you done lost yourself a show."

She was a drinker too, and sexually as tk as her husband. Her greatest sorrow occurred when her vengeful husband had her declared unfit to care for adopted son, taken away to an orphan home. She died in 1937 in a crash in Mississippi.[Komisar]

Theater critic Lucy Komisar gives pre-show briefings and post-show discussions for theater parties to enrich playgoers' experiences. She'll also help find an appropriate show and make or advise on arrangements. Interested parties may telephone (212) 929-1610 for information.

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