September 13, 2007

Stage and Music Question Human Goodness

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It starts with music; a song, a dance and good humor. On a mostly bare set, the piano is played while the main characters exposit the introduction. No one is in a concentration camp, no one is running from the Gestapo, no one is hailing Hitler in uniform. The music is lively, not dismal, the lighting bright and cheery, not grey and foreboding. I’m confused; is this the wrong play? Forgive my glib tone; I am only echoing a part of the juxtaposition that is Good, the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts’ opening play for their fall season about a good man in Germany in the 1930s who, little by little, becomes a member of the Nazi Party. This struggle between good and bad, and our judgments of both, are Good’s core.
The main character, John Halder, played by Dennis Fox, a returning RPTA for the fall, is a professor of German Literature. After writing a novel promoting euthanasia is handpicked by the Party to begin writing justifications for their actions against different racial groups. Beginning with the mentally disabled, it then escalates, as Halder finds himself, again and again, making logical justifications and rationalizations for his behavior just as he is doing for his party. Though the play is about Halder’s life, his friends, family and colleagues are always present (literally — none of the actors leave the stage from their first entrances to practically the end). Among these is his mother (Carolyn Goelzer, RPTA) who suffers from dementia, his wife Helen (Christine Bullen ’08) and Anne (Allison Buck ’09), the student he leaves her for. Along with his family is his best friend Maurice (Jeff Guyton), an outspoken Jewish psychiatrist who acts as Halder’s often-ignored conscience throughout the play.
While the alone is fascinating, it is the specific motifs and surprising ticks of the play that make it such a unique experience. As I mentioned earlier (somewhat facetiously), music plays many roles in the play. Halder has a bit of a psychological problem; his entire life is narrated by music. Different bands are constantly appearing and playing in the back of his mind. At times the music matches his inner emotions, at times it is in ironic (and darkly humorous) contrast; at times it does nothing but offer the audience another glimpse into the chaos and confusion Halder is facing. Along with the music is the surprising humor to the play; between Maurice’s blatant epithets against the Nazis (and at times, the Jews), Halder himself takes an amused tone with his asides to the audience. Both forces — music and humor — act as sirens, drawing the audience into the story so that it is hard to fault Halder for his actions. Like him and the other Nazis in the play, we get a very small taste of what it’s like to be so sedated into evil.
For Director Prof. Bruce Levitt, theatre, that very seduction is the crux of the play. “The two things that attracted me to the play were its theatricality and this overarching notion of how easy it is for groups or individuals to be seduced into barbarism,” he said. Levitt along with Prof. David Feldshuh, theatre, have been discussing the production of Good at Cornell for the last twenty years. Though the play, like any, presented challenges — both because of its structure as well as the timing of the production — it was a challenge that Levitt, the actors and the crew picked up willingly.
One of the most interesting challenges of the play is that all of the actors stay on stage for its entire duration. As the set itself is pretty bare, the actors become the set, scenery and props. They are not only constant reminders of Halder’s past transgressions and actions, but they act also as judges, a Greek Chorus constantly in view, both for the audience and as catalysts for Halder’s guilt.
For anyone who has ever read Lolita (and if you haven’t, put down this review right now and pick it up instead), John Halder offers an uncanny resemblance to Humbert Humbert. Likeable, sarcastic, funny and self-deprecating, the audience (and therefore jury of his case) has a hard time blaming him. It wasn’t my fault, he keeps offering, even as his contributions to the atrocities of the Nazi Regime become larger and even more frightening. Perhaps that is the dangerousness and fascination of the play. No death or brutality ever occurs on stage; it is only discussed. Even Hitler seems harmless and pathetic; he is confused in a dream with Charlie Chaplin. One must wonder how much of what the audience sees is truth, and how much is manipulated by Halder in his retelling.
The beauty of theatre is that it gives insight into those we are quick to judge. “He’s a reasonably good person who is dragged along with a parade,” offers Fox of his character. But there it is, that word “good” again. We are all reasonably good people; and as an audience we are reasonable as well. Most of the decisions that Halder makes seem logical when you forget the context, a recurrence in history.
We are seduced by the music, by the humor, by Halder himself. So we shrug, we laugh, we forgive, we forget. Do we judge him? Do we judge ourselves? If Good reminds us of anything, it is how easy it is for the good to go wrong — how easy it is to write someone off as harmless and to turn tragedy into a song and a dance.