History Lessons

Rhombus Theatre's Lebensraum beckons Jews back to the Fatherland; Park Square's Taking Sides tries the morality of the devil's maestro

Such troubling ideas linger at the periphery of Ronald Harwood's Taking Sides, now at Park Square Theatre. The scene is the American Zone of Berlin in the chaotic aftermath of the war--a pallid purple sky streaked with light and heaps of pulverized fascist kitsch architecture denote the wasteland. In the midst of the fallen Reich, a bellicose American soldier named Steve (Dave Clements) is holding a kangaroo court for Nazi sympathizers. Playing white whale to Steve's Ahab is Wilhelm Furtwängler (Michael Tezla), a world-famous symphony conductor who is a spitting image of John Gotti. Furtwängler claims to have helped Jewish musicians escape Germany, but he also has the dubious distinction of having been the Führer's birthday entertainment of choice. Thrown into the mix to ensure an acceptable histrionics quotient is a loony war widow (Jodi Kellogg), a comely German fräulein (Meg Higgins), a treacherous Nazi collaborator (Edwin Strout), and another American officer who admires Furtwängler and whines lines like "Yes, I'm a Jew, but I'm also a human being."

Aside from such occasional shrill outbursts, all of the characters in Taking Sides and indeed the setting itself are subservient to the play's narrative conceit, which is a staged debate about the moral responsibility of artists. The uncultured American is haunted by memories of the camps (as in Benigni's film, invoked here only for their psychic weight) and spurred on his course by self-righteous rhetoric and a need to expunge his own guilt. Furtwängler is a supremely arrogant man whose argument that art bears no relation to political, and thus moral, life rings as a self-serving, elitist lie.

So whose side do we take? In the end, Taking Sides offers no answers, only questions. Can we excuse complicity with evil because the lines between right and wrong occasionally become blurred? Doesn't history demand more of us?

No sympathy for the devil: Major Arnold (Dave Clements) browbeats suspected Nazi sympathizer Wilhelm Furtwängler (Michael Tezla) in Park Square's Taking Sides
No sympathy for the devil: Major Arnold (Dave Clements) browbeats suspected Nazi sympathizer Wilhelm Furtwängler (Michael Tezla) in Park Square's Taking Sides

 

Lebensraum runs through April 17 at the Jewish Community Center and the Hennepin Center for the Arts; (612) 377-8330, ext. 311. Taking Sides runs through April 18 at the Park Square Theatre; (651) 291-7005.

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