Theater Review: “A Little Calm Before the Storm” — The Art of Playing Hitler
Director Guy Ben-Aharon is on a roll. Working through Israeli Stage and German Stage, he has brought together another smart, compelling, foreign play (an American premiere) and a first-rate cast.
By Ian Thal
In Theresia Walser’s A Little Calm Before the Storm, three actors sit in the green room waiting to be part of a televised discussion on the challenges of playing Hitler. The 2006 play has been both popular in Germany (reportedly a five-year run) and controversial. Consul General Rolf Schütte, who was in attendance at the staged reading, said that he could not imagine such play being produced in Germany 15 years prior.
The eldest actor, the famed Franz Prächtel (Johnny Lee Davenport), confesses his ambivalence about providing what some consider the definitive film portrayal of the Führer. He recognizes that it as one of the most impressive artistic achievements in his career, but he recounts, with disgust, that while on a recent trip to Tunisia, a local admirer wanted him to sign a piece of Hitler memorabilia with the dictator’s name. Worse, his turn as Hitler has overshadowed the actor’s other performances: his acclaimed Hamlet as well as his portrayals of Albert Schweitzer and Leon Tolstoy.
One of the other actors who played Hitler, Peter Söst (Jeremiah Kissel), says that his critically acclaimed performance has been overshadowed by Prächtel’s. Prächtel explains that his method of playing the Führer demanded that he simultaneously discover the evil in himself and the pathetic in Hitler. Söst responds that he felt the need to do the opposite: he refused to make Hitler human. Ironically, while Prächtel has no problem with dissociating himself from his role, Söst is afraid of losing his humanity. The actor admits his anxiety, saying that when he makes love to his wife, that she is making love to Hitler.
The third actor in the green room is Ulli Lerch (Ted Hewlett), whom Prächtel first mistakes for the television interviewer. Lerch is in awe of the veteran actors, and perhaps for good reason. Walser, indicating that Lerch may be the lesser as well as the younger actor, has Lerch’s claim to fame be that he played Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s reichsleiter, the second-in-command of the Nazi party, the Reich’s minister of propaganda. Lerch is callow yet dogmatic: despite his admiration of Prächtel and Söst, he is less interested in the art and craft of acting than in using acting as a means for exploring post-modern theories about narrative.
On one level, A Little Calm Before the Storm is only a prelude to a discussion about how evil can be portrayed in art. During the one-act play Prächtel, Söst, and Lerch talk about this difficult topic and then dance away from it. Walser provides plenty of comic distraction: Prächtel becomes exasperated that he cannot get a glass of tap water in the television studio; Söst attempts to coach Lerch on how to pull off irrelevant talk show banter. Waiting for the television host who never comes, the impatient actors begin to taunt each other, appraising each other’s performances, questioning if the other actor can do justice to such a hated historical figure as Hitler.
Along with its focus on portraying evil, the play presents a genealogy of postwar theater acting trends. Prächtel represents the generation that believes actors must serve the text, striking a balance between emotional realism and the heightened action of the stage. The stage is his primary calling; only when a great role is offered to him does he show an interest in film. Lerch, on the other hand, is an acclaimed young actor who is very much of his own generation. He works in both film and theatre but sees them as vastly separate endeavors. He argues that contemporary audiences do not connect easily with classic dramas: he believes that stage productions of older texts must incorporate video, hypertext, or other new media. Walser has some fun with this chic mentality: Lerch tells Prächtel that he is performing the role of Hamlet. The directorial conceit in the production is that the Prince of Denmark is suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder (a fashionable diagnosis and reading of the text). What’s more, Hamlet will be played by seven different actors, each doubling as the play’s other characters (Lerch proudly announces that he will play both Hamlet and Gertrude).
Söst typifies the generation that sits between the two extremes: while Prächtel is ambivalent about film, Söst is eager to be on stage and before the camera. Still, he is awed and humbled by Prächtel’s accomplishments to the point of resignation: he will never be as good.
As noted in my Fuse interview with Ben-Aharon, American theatrical practice reveres the playwright while in Germany the director is worshiped. In the play, Prächtel speaks glowingly of his work with Dieter Fells (a composite figure who is based on two German directors whom Walser mentioned in the post-show discussion as major figures whose “time had passed”), describing Fells as an artist who treats every script as if it was a musical score, with himself as the featured soloist. In contrast, Lerch not only subscribes to his director’s pop-psychological vision of “seven Hamlets,” but aspires to become a director himself so that he can similarly deconstruct texts and theatrical conventions in precisely the same “creative” manner.
Though it was a reading, Johnny Lee Davenport and Jeremiah Kissel invested their roles with the kind of detail that recalls how actors interact with each other before the house opens. The pair had just performed opposite one another two weeks before in another reading under Ben-Aharon’s direction, and they clearly relished their working relationship. Davenport is appropriately larger than life as Prächtel, a man who is more at home on a large proscenium stage than posing for a film close-up. Kissel’s nimble comic timing is well-suited for the role of Söst, a mass of contradictions who recognizes himself as a mass of contradictions. He takes his art seriously, yet Söst is attuned to the superficiality of the business. He rehearses television patter in order to juice up his attraction to the television audience. He also attempts to form alliances through flattery and pseudo-psychoanalytic explanations: he tries to stay in Prächtel’s good graces while positioning himself to become the elder statesman of acting once Prächtel is gone.
In a discussion after the reading, Kissel wondered if A Little Calm Before the Storm‘s second act could be expanded to include the anticipated television discussion as a second act. Walser explained, through a translator, that, though she had no plans to do so, she has written a companion piece to this play in which the wives of three dictators, Imelda Marcos, Margot Feist Honecker, and a composite character representing the wives of a number of Arab dictators, debate who should play them.
Director Guy Ben-Aharon is on a roll. Working through Israeli Stage and German Stage, he has brought together another smart, compelling foreign play (an American premiere) and a first-rate cast. In only a few short years, Boston’s theatre scene has become increasingly hospitable to new plays by local playwrights. Are we are on the verge of becoming a city open to stimulating contemporary foreign work as well? That kind of creative storm would be equally welcome.