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A CurtainUp Review

What Can I do? I'm only an actor
--- Hendrik

Mephisto Cast
The Mephisto Cast
(Photo: Colin D.Young)
Klaus Mann (son of novelist Thomas Mann) was forty-three when he committed suicide in a Cannes hotel in 1949. His frustration with the post-war West German politics that made it impossible to get his 1936 novel Mephisto published may well have been a contributing factor. But Mann's unforgettable story of a group of politically involved theatrical people in Weimar Germany caught up in the nightmare of the country's gradual descent into the nightmare of Naziism.

The novel had an underground following but was not legally published until 1981. It remains in print. István Szabó film adaptation also lives on. It starred Klaus Maria Brandauer as Hendrik Höfgen, an actor modeled on Mann's former best friend and brother-in-law Gustav Gründgens who rose to the pinnacle of the Nazis' state theater. (He continued his career after the war, touring international theaters in Faust, though like Mann he died by his own hand). The film won a Best Foreign Film Oscar and will soon be available as a video.

In 1979 Mann's novel also prompted Ariane Mnouchkine to write a play for Theatre du Soleil on the outskirts of Paris. It caused enough of a stir to seed an English translation by Timberlake Wertenbaker which was produced in London with Alan Rickman in the leading role. Thanks to the combined efforts of Theater of Necessity and Reverie Productions, Mnouchkine's vivid adaptation is now enjoying a one-month U.S. premiere in the Present Company's Theatorium on the Lower East Side. It's a small space quite a few subway stops from the main theater district, but Mephisto is well worth the ride. The size of the theater and production budget notwithstanding, the play is big in every way that counts: acting, dramatic impact and a powerful script that will leave you pondering how change happened in a society when people said this couldn't happen -- and how and where it could happen again.

The play stands apart from the film, in that it is more an ensemble than a star vehicle. Hendrik, the Hamburg company's leading actor who yearns to be a star in Berlin (the equivalent of moving from regional theater to Broadway) is still the main character. But while Mark Leydorf, the current production's Faust-like Hendrik, gives a star quality performance, he shares the stage with a dozen other stars -- the ensemble.

It's an epic story that spans thirteen years, from 1923 to 1936. This time line shows how Germany, dispirited after its World War I defeat and economically depressed by rampant inflation was fertile soil for political "saviors" -- first Lenin and the Communists (espoused by most of the theater company) and then Hitler and the Nazis, (inevitably leading to divided loyalties).

To take us back to the 1923 beginning, there's an opening flash forward to 1949 in which we hear Klaus Mann (Matthew Pritchard) reading aloud the letter in which his publisher's reneges on a promise to publish his novel, followed by his own bitter reply. This forceful and apt beginning takes place on a balcony. Director Rachel Kranz also uses that balcony to excellent effect throughout for scenes that take place near the railroad station from which various members of the ensemble leave Hamburg for destinations determined by the choices they make in response to the changing political landscape. Like the play's most obvious metaphor -- the role played by the actor who is lured into an off-stage Faustian deal with the Nazis, those recurring scenes near the railroad station dramatize how more and more of the people in the play (and Germans generally) became transients.

For the main playing area designer Sarah Lambert has created a simple set that evokes the sweep of shifting locations and fluidly allows the individual stories to be told through behind the scenes interaction and excerpts from the company's staged works. A raised platform becomes a stage for the play-within-the-play scenes. Tables and chairs at either side of that stage-within-the-stage accommodate most of the backstage interaction between the people who are part of the theater company. Colin D. Young's lighting and Kathy Hall's original music support the script's sense of ominous dread, and create a sufficiently hypnotic mood, to make the creakiness of the platform a minor distraction.

The welter of incident and several dozen characters require close attention on the viewer's part, especially during the rather too busy first hour when the large cast of subsidiary characters have to be established; to name just a few: The company's artistic director (David Palmer Brown who also plays a successful playwright) who is eventually forced to choose between his career and his Jewish wife ((Karin Bowersock, who also plays one of the company's more "adaptable" employees) . . .  Miklas (Tim Cusak) as a young, untalented apprentice and who falls easy prey to the Nazi doctrines. . . Hendrik's mistress Juliette (Soraya Butler), whose African heritage becomes an issue in their relationship . . .  the most ardent Communist of the group, Otto (Joel Van Liew).

It is during the second act, when all the main players and their viewpoints have taken shape, that the tensions escalates and the play is at its most gripping. The Nazis' stepped-up assault on the careers and personal lives of the Hamburg troupe's members, is also reflected in the play-within-the play segments. These include three stunning cabaret scenes and besides the play that inspired the title and serves as the central metaphor for Hendrik's crisis of honor, there are several excerpts from The Cherry Orchard which subtly link Chekhov's disenfranchised aristocrats to the Germans' lost dreams of greatness.

At the end Hendrick rationalizes his Faustian bargain with " I'm only an actor ". But Mark Leydorf and his fellow actors disprove this rationale. They are not "only actors" but forceful interpreters of the author's intent.

At $15 a ticket Mephisto provides a chance to experience meaningful live theater at little more than the price of a movie. A consumer note: The tickets are sold on an open seating basis and all seats have perfect sight lines. However, since the theater is not air conditioned, I'd suggest sitting at the side and close to the standing fan which provides a cooling breeze

Written by Ariane Mnouchkine
Translated by Timberlake Wertenbaker
Based on the novel by Klaus Mann
Directed by Rachel Kranz

Cast: Eleni Beja, Karin Bowersock, David Palmer Brown, Soraya Butler, Anushka Carter, Sabrina Cowen, Tim Cusack, Dee Dee Friedman, John Hall, Mark Leydorf, Gerald Marsini, Matthew Pritchard, Bill Roulet, Joel van Liew
Set Design: Sarah Lambert
Costume Design: Elly van Horne
Lighting Design: Colin D. Young
Sound Design: Stefan Jacobs
Original Music: Kathy Hall Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission
Theater of Necessity and Reverie Productions
at Present Company Theatorium, 196-8 Stanton Street (Ridge/ Attorney) 212/ 420-8877
Wed - Sat at 7pm; Sun at 2pm -$15

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 6/10 performace
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