AT's staging of Kushner early work is timely, unforgettable
"We are perched at the brink of a great historical crime." When playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America) first put those words in the mouth of a jittery Berlin actress named Agnes Eggling, the gradually terrified central character of his first original play, A Bright Room Called Day, the future Pulitzer Prize winner was drawing a distinct parallel between the crimes of Germany's Third Reich, at the very beginnings of which the play is set, and the various international and domestic crimes committed by Reagan-era America in the mid-1980s, during which Kushner was writing his angry, energetic, explosive prototype of a play.
Today, in post-9-11 America, such comparisons seem ludicrously naïve; at the same time, they manage to appear unnervingly prophetic. As daily reports appear in our newspapers revealing a parade of war crimes in Iraq; as the Supreme Court considers whether the U.S. government's state-sanctioned disappearing of its own citizens is constitutional; as Americans passively debate the efficacy of the Patriot Act, while hard-fought freedoms are eradicated beneath our very noses, the numerous social and political harms brought about during the Reagan years seem like a mere warm-up for what many see as the "great historical crimes" of the Bush era. As such, Kushner's amazing, messy, agitprop bedazzlement, for all its dated paranoiac pronouncements ("Reagan equals Hitler!"), is vibrantly, unsettlingly timely.
Now onstage at Actors Theatre and directed by John Craven, A Bright Room Called Day lurches back and forth between Agnes' apartment in Berlin in 1932 and '33, and the unspecified dwelling of Zillah (played with riveting intensity by Danielle Lewis), a young anarchist circa 1987 who acts as a kind of Greek chorus of one, pointedly showing off old photos of the saluting German masses and roaming the stage making entertainingly apt speeches.
"Don't put too much stock in a good night's sleep," she warns. "During times of reactionary backlash, the only people sleeping soundly are the guys who're giving the rest of us bad dreams."
The majority of the drama takes place in Agnes' spacious Berlin apartment, where she is the gracious hostess to a cantankerous band of artists, actors and political activists for whom the apartment has become a comfortable salon for storytelling games and philosophical debate. Husz (Brent Lindsay), Agnes' lover, is a one-eyed Hungarian filmmaker with a tendency to spend his own activist energies in making witty pronouncements rather than putting up practical resistance.
Paulinka (Danielle Cain), another actress, boasts a tendency toward survivalist compromise of principles, and Annabella (Mary Gannon) is a painter with a little too much confidence in her own considerable intelligence. Baz (Steven Abbot) is an openly homosexual psychologist who glibly believes that fascism is related to sexual repression.
From the opening scene on New Year's Eve, when the friends drink toast after toast to a hopeful future for Germany even as they make casual, joking references to the fringe-dwelling Nazi party and to Hitler, until late in the first act when the danger seems to be obviously growing, Agnes and her companions keep brushing it all off as amusing, frustrating, exasperating--but not yet very dangerous.
As the days and nights rush by (significant dates and political events are noted during scene changes by text projected on the wall of the apartment) and as it becomes clear that the Nazis are not the joke they once seemed to be, Agnes and company flip-flop between anger and disbelief, vainly supposing that before fascism could actually take root in Germany a popular revolution would come, that the people would riot in the streets. The riots never come, and the opportunity to change the future comes and goes while the artists are busy.
Kushner injects the whole enterprise with the occasional supernatural visitation--a hungry ghost (Mollie Boice), a cameo appearance by the devil (William H. Waxman)--and provides a surprising amount of humor throughout, right up to the play's ironic and unsettling conclusion. The cast is uniformly excellent, confidently maneuvering through Kushner's famously poetic verbiage and his potentially daunting soliloquies. Some will find it overstated and preachy, and, hey, it is. The anarchist Zillah even admits it early on, announcing, "Overstatement is your friend. Use it!"
But as history demonstrates, and this production reminds us, whenever we find ourselves perched at the brink of great national crimes, a bit of preaching is not only tolerable, it is perhaps necessary.
'A Bright Room Called Day' runs Thursday-Sunday through June 6. Thursday-Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 2pm. Actors Theatre, Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. $15-$22. 707.523.4185, ext. 1.
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From the May 12-18, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.