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Theater Mon Nov 10 2014

Spartan's A Bright Room Called Day Can't Overcome Kushner's Political Sermonizing

Wicke and De la Guardia. Photo by Justine Albert Photography.

It's Berlin, New Year's Eve 1931. A group of artists and filmmakers celebrate the new year of 1932 in the apartment of Agnes (Amanda de la Guardia). They're leftists and consumed by discussions of politics as well as art.

Tony Kushner's 1985 play, A Bright Room Called Day, begins in the waning months of Weimar Germany, as Hitler's National Socialists are on the rise. The Berlin scenes are sometimes interrupted by 1982 scenes where Zillah (Jaci Kleinfeld), a young American woman, talks about the current US political environment and the transgressions of the Reagan administration.

Spartan Theatre Company makes a valiant effort in staging this 2.5-hour play, but Kushner's sometimes-lyrical dialogue can't overcome his didactic political sermonizing. Director Laura Elleseg does a creditable job of maintaining the dramatic pace and the acting generally is good. But there are usually reasons why a rarely performed play is rarely performed. A Bright Room Called Day is such an example. Even Shakespeare wrote a few turkeys.

The scenes progress through 1932 and into 1933, with political events narrated on a projection screen on the side of the stage. From the turmoil of elections that bring Hitler to power as chancellor to early actions against Jews, homosexuals and "degenerate" artists, the tragedy progresses inexorably.

Agnes and her lover, a Hungarian filmmaker named Husz (Guy F Wicke), go through stages of denial, loathing and fear as the Nazi party accumulates power and civil liberties are eroded. Their performances are both solid and believable.

Agnes and her painter friend Annabella (Naomi Mark) decide they'll work for the German Communist party, believing it will surely overcome the Nazi movement. ("The fascists pretend they are socialists but without economics, it all turns to drivel.") Their friends Paulinka, a glamorous but drug-addled star (Alexandra Gonzalez) and Gregor "Baz," a gay man (David Guiden) provide fine performances as actors whose lives are changed radically by the political situation.

Communist party functionaries visit Agnes, spouting some of the most leaden dialogue in the script. And to add a touch of magical realism, a symbolic ghost character named Die Alte (the old one) played by Andy Monson, slips through Agnes' window from time to time to beg for food and issue ominous warnings. The same actor plays Herr Swetts, the devil, who is summoned by Husz from his Carpathian Mountains, to tell the devil's history and their future.

The 1982 interludes where Zillah berates and castigates the Reagan administration are shrill and trivializing breaks in the 1932-33 story line. Yes, the Reagan presidency was guilty of serious crimes, most devastating of which was denying the existence of the AIDS crisis. But was that really comparable to Hitler's death camps? Some productions of this Kushner play leave out the Zillah scenes, which seems like a wise move to me. That statement is theater criticism, not political commentary. I agree with Kushner's views of the Reagan administration; but they spoil the flow of this story.

The performance venue is the storefront CIC Theater (formerly the Chemically Imbalanced Theater) in north Lakeview. The lobby area has comfy seating and a spacious bar. Spartan's stage design is a simple motif embellished with black draperies. Sierra Nibbe's costumes reproduce the mood of early 1930s Berlin. Tim Bickel's sound design provides an excellent aural backdrop.

Spartan Theatre Company stages A Bright Room Called Day at the CIC Theater, 1422 W. Irving Park Rd., through Nov. 23. Performances are at 7:30pm Friday and Saturday and 3pm on Sundays. Tickets are $15-20. You can buy them online or at the theater at the time of the production.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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