Monday, January 28, 2013

Douglas Messerli | "Playing the Play" (on Back to Back Theatre company's Ganesh Versus the Third Reich)

playing the play
by Douglas Messerli 

Back to Back Theatre company, Ganesh Versus the Third Reich / performed by Mark Deans, Simon Laherty, Scott Price, Brian Tilley and Luke Ryan / Los Angeles, UCLA Freud Playhouse / the performance I saw as a matinee on Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Geelong, Australia Back to Back Theatre group, according to their own description, “creates new forms of contemporary theatre imagined from the minds and experiences of a unique ensemble of actors with a disability, giving voice to the social and political issues that speak to all people.” Certainly those are lofty goals, but one does have to question the “all.” Can anything speak to “all” or even attempt to. The two elderly women who sat next to me yesterday afternoon had no idea what they were about to see, and were quite visibly disturbed when, late into the play, the actor also playing the director of the work (Luke Ryan), lashed out at the audience sitting in the first rows for “coming to see a freak show,” although he mollified them some by claiming he always imagined the first few rows of the theater as empty. The production I saw was sold out!


      Moreover, this is a work which requires the audience attend, that they listen closely just to hear some of the disabled, Australian actors’ words—sometimes slurred with heavy “down under” accents—and mentally make large metaphorical connections as well as accept a work that might be seen as morally reprehensible to some. Indeed, when the company first conceived of a story in which the great Indian Ganesh, the elephant-headed “mover of obstacles” visits  Adolph Hitler and Joseph Mengele to retrieve the Hindu swastika symbol, they themselves felt it might be inappropriate to combine such a “fairytale” within the holocaust.
       In the end, however, Ganesh Versus the Third Reich is less about the meeting of the ancient God with the monstrous Nazi leader that in is a work dealing the attempts of this group to create and accomplish such an audacious piece of theater. Four of the actors have difficultly with language, and one, Mark Deans, has trouble in even expressing himself, often confusing the experience of the performance with reality. Brian Tilley, playing he elephant-god, strongly questions the effectiveness or even propriety of his performance. The young actor playing both a Jewish prisoner and, later, Hitler, Simon Laherty, is often timid to take on such unlikely roles. Scott Price emphatically feels the whole play is a terrible mistake, lashing out at the work’s “director” and the rest of the cast. But gradually we begin to see parallels, not so much in the story, but in relation to the large issues of power and control, along with Nazi Dr. Megele’s real-life fascination with what he would described as “degenerates.

      Ryan, who The New York Times critic Ben Brantley described as a “handsome and well spoken man” (i.e., apparently not mentally challenged) alone sees the importance of presenting this play, coaxing his often recalcitrant company with praise, pep-talks, only to finally give up in complete frustration after Price refuses to fall correctly upon being “shot,” a scene which ends in all-out battle between him and the others, closing down the play.

     Appearing most of the time only in silk running shorts, as if to show off his physique, Ryan is caring and protective at the same time he is his glib and domineering. Although he is a force behind the production, he is also part of the reason for the company’s own doubts, a kind of friendly bully who, although sympathetic to their difficulties, is also impatient and sometimes outright abusive. Although the members might often virulently argue with each other, they give one another supportive hugs after brutal interchanges, working as a unit in their achievements. In short, they do precisely what any theater company must do if they are to attain an effective performance, only here the effect is the opposite of the naturalistic or theatrically coherent performances most of us would define as “great theater.” Here it is the differences, the friction, the interruptions, even the holes in the work that matter far more than the absolute credibility to which most of Western theater generally aspires.

      This fascinating work ends, in fact, with a character playing a child’s game—which I would argue is perhaps at the very heart of any theater (as a child I used to ask other children to “play play” with me, resulting, often, in a good scolding by some adults for my seeming baby talk)—when the angry “director” leaves Deans and the others “to take a swim,” asking him to play “hide-and-seek,” so that he can escape. Deans hides, quite predictably, beneath a table, but when no one comes to find him, grows restless, laying down to pretend to sleep, rising again, returning to the crouch with which he began. Like a trapped animal, he is confused, tired, impatient, but still continues to participate in the “play” of the game. When the lights go out, he is the first up for a well-deserved bow to the applauding audience, and, after the others take their bows, raises his arms in joy once more to take all that applause in!
      And yes, we realize, that does somehow represent us all. We all want to be appreciated for the theater of the self we every day create, even if the acts we undertake cannot be as heroic as we might have desired.

Los Angeles, January 28, 2013

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