Sunday, 12 November 2017

Taken At Midnight relives Nazi horrorshow 

All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights :  A Jewish lawyer, prosecutor Hans Litten, subpoenas and cross-examines Adolf Hitler in 1931. It's in a criminal trial involving four brownshirts from the paramilitary street-thug batallion known as the Sturmabteilung (SA). The four have been arraigned for a murder committed during one of the Nazi's agitprop-cum-Bierstein nites. Through canny cross-examination, the 27-year-old prosecutor gets Hitler to reveal the link between his National Socialist party and Ernst Rohm's homegrown mafioso. In revenge two years later, Litten is arrested and becomes known as Hitler's personal prisoner. After four years of "protective custody" -- read torture -- he suicides in Dachau. 

Gestapo chief of political prisoners Dr. Conrad (Brian Hinson) holds up committal papers for the son of Irmgard Litten (Suzanne Ritstic) whose son Hans, 27, had the audacity to cross-examine Hitler in a criminal case involving the SA hit squad who killed opponents of the Nazi juggernaut.
Photo credit : Nancy Caldwell, UPV
Taken At Midnight focuses mostly on Litten's mother Irmgard (Suzanne Ristic) who with steadfast and stoic determination beseeches an unctuous bureaucrat Dr. Conrad (Brian Hinson) to find and release her son (Sean Anthony). She pleads grimly, vainly, how in the dying days of Oskar von Hindenburg's doomed Weimar Republic Hans was only "doing his duty" -- his Pflicht -- to uphold the established law of the day. Dr. Conrad feigns sympathy -- his phony sincerity the more chilling given his rank as a Gestapo officer in the fiendish Schutzstaffel. (Tellingly Conrad is the only character playwright Michael Hayhurst gives no first name to : he is a role, not a person.)

What the show brings to the stage Europe's myriad war memorials often focus on individual souls whose efforts to oppose or just keep out-of-sight of Hitler and his henchmen make the horrors of the Nazi diabolika that much more personal. Thus the around-the-block lineups at the Anne Frank house on the Prinzengracht canal in Amsterdam. One hopeful Jewish teenager in hiding brought the nearly incomprehensible scope of Hitler's nightmare down to a scale the mind can manage. This play is just another such example : the dehumanization of Hans Litten and his prison-mates made personal, each one as one.

Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe commemorating the Holocaust casts haunting shadows. Located two scant blocks east of the site of Hitler's bunker where he suicided, April 30, 1945. (The bunker was dynamited and the debris buried in on itself by the Communist government of East Germany. But its commemorative explanatory billboard in the re-united Germany is now an obligatory stopover for tourists.)
Photo credit : Sam Lockhart, 2017 (Nikon P50)
Production values that shine through :  Immediate mention must be made of Set Designer Allyson Fournier's effective set. In the middle is bleacher-like scaffolding reminiscent of both Hitler's scream-speech podiums in Bavaria adorned with swastika bunting  as well as resembling a hangman's gallows.  Downstage left is the tatty living room that Irmgard rents to have persistent access to Dr. Conrad's office, which anchors the downstage right 25% of the stage.

Kate Pierre's costumes are honest to the times, though the fittings on the SA / SS guards could have been a bit more crisp and thus menacing in their efficient sadism. Between them, meanwhile, Kanon Hewitt's soundscape of eery cave winds rising-&-dying was matched by Lighting Director Michael Methot's quick-spots and backlight. Together they created a truly spooky mood to heighten the menace permeating the action.

Scriptique :  Long have I advocated that any prospective drama script needs to be subjected to the "radio play" litmus test before being block-&-staged. That way the dramatic tensions between characters are subjected to a listener's imagination and analysis for dialogue cleverness, speech length, cadence, inflection and such. 

The Hayhurst script would, alas, likely earn but a B- / C on that account : its essential didacticism aside, Irmgard's sermonettes addressed a bit-too-regularly to the audience needed surgical reduction and bypass sutures. The show's 135 minutes'  duration was 15-too-long by half.

A final fateful meeting at Dachau between son Hans (Sean Anthony) and mother Irmgard (Suzanne Ristic). Release for him will not come from a walk out the prison gates. He takes other measures.
Photo credit : Nancy Caldwell, UPV
Acting pin-spots :  The above critique to the contrary notwithstanding, Suzanne Ristic's Frau Litten turn was heart-rending, fully-focus'd, an utterly profound mother's living lament for her son the system stole from her and now tortures. 

The dialogues she shared with her cowardly, rationalizing and capitulating husband Fritz (Douglas Abel) were stellar for both actors.

As well the scenes with Dr. Conrad were altogether believable, particularly the late-scene explosions between them : she the overwrought Mutti, he the domineering put-down patriarch so central throughout history.

Sean Anthony as son Hans was compelling in his commitment to rooting out where truth lies even under torture.

On a slightly lighter note, Richard Hersley's description and blocked antics imitating Hitler were worth the ticket price alone : "He's an overwrought eunuch with a drinking problem, a novelty moustache and a pimp haircut, the Austrian transvestite." Terrific mocking in-character performance consistently delivered the night long by Hersley.

Who gonna like :  The 1984-ish insidiousness of the Nazi bureaucratic police regime is gripping material indeed in a world where USA president D. J. Trump gleefully hugs  Putin and makes no apology how he embraces both Putin's style-&-substance.

Indeed, the line that is probably truest to-day world-wide would have to be Irmgard's observation : "Fanaticism : so easy to spot in someone else, impossible to detect in yourself." (As suggested supra, USA's current president fails profoundly on both sides of that equation.)

If you liked Master Class by David Pownall, Taken At Midnight is another venture into a parallel universe of such chilling historic fiction and facts. It provides what millennial pub-crawlers might describe as a Jaegerbomb : snap-to side effects that hit you and are both buzzy and a bit stupefying.

Particulars : Written by Mark Hayhurst.  Produced by The United Players of Vancouver.  Directed by Michael Fera. Artistic Director Andree Karass. At Jericho Arts Centre, 1675 Discovery Street. On through November 26th. Run-time 150 minutes (two acts), including intermission. Tickets & schedule information 604.224.8007, ext 2 or

Production team : Director Michael Fera. Executive Producer Andree Karas.  Producer Linda Begg. Technical Director / Lighting Michael Methot .  Set Designer Allyson Fournier.  Costume Designer Kate Pierre.  Sound Designer Kanon Hewitt.  Stage Manager Jasmin Sandhu.  Assistant Stage Manager LAnna Nebolsina.  Fight Directors Michael Kovac, Ryan Bolton McNeill.

Performers : Douglas Abel (Fritz Litton).  Jake Anthony (SA / SS guard).  Sean Anthony (Hans Litten).  John Harris (Lord Clifford Allen).  Richard Hersley (Erich Mühsam).  Brian Hinson (Dr. Conrad).  Michael Kahn (Carl von Ossietzky)).  Michael Lang (SA \ SS guard; Hotelier; Hitler).  Suzanne Ristic (Irmgard Litten).  Max Smith (Gustav Hammerman / Jr. Gestapo).   

Addendum : Quotable quotes from Taken At Midnight

Irmgard : If you don't have patience, you'll never hold them accountable.

Dr. Conrad : Your son is not 'under arrest', he is in 'protective custody'.

Dr. Conrad : Your son is a fool, not a criminal.

Irmgard : I don't feel anguish : I feel hatred and proud.  Fritz : If you weren't so naive as he is, you would see what is really going on.

Hans (to Hitler at the 1931 trial) : What is the purpose of these brownshirts?  Hitler : They are the party's sports section. They give classes in self-defence.  Hans : What do they teach, "Jew"-jitsui?

Irmgard : Perfect fear casts out love.

Irmgard (to Lord Allan) : I'm still reasonable, but I am desperate.

Hans & Musham, debating why Hitler murders Ernst Rohm plus the top SA commanders on the "Night of the Long Knives" : It is the narcissism of small differences. They are liquidating their own supporters in order to not be accused of favouritism. 

Irmgard to Dr. Conrad whom she meets casually in the Tiergarten : I wander the streets of Berlin and I look for irony in the peoples' faces.

Irmgard on why she is so persistent about Hans : Men cannot stand to see a child in pain. They say we have instinct over reason. Men think before they act. They work out the odds. The women just fight on.

Irmgard : This is what happens to people when you seek Destiny with a capital D and take personal destiny out of their own hands.

Irmgard : I prayed for the outside world to intervene -- or at least take notice.

Irmgard : Those who do the dirty work are always verbose.

Irmgard : I''ve never felt more powerful and soiled. 

Irmgard : When you are cynical the world seems much worse than it is.

Irmgard. Yes, there is something contemptible about the defeated.


No comments:

Post a Comment