September 18, 2007

Schwartz Does Pretty Good

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The Department of Theatre, Film & Dance is currently intriguing audiences this September with its production of C.P. Taylor’s Good at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts. Directed by Bruce Levitt, this thought-provoking play introduces the terrifying notion that despite personal assertions to the contrary, larger situational forces can drive supposedly “good” people to commit heinous and depraved acts, which can be no better exemplified than by the atrocities of the Nazi regime in the early 20th century. Good not only pushes the envelope on defining the tenuous boundary between good and evil but also evokes contemplation about how easily one can be led into allowing horrible acts to occur.
Originally produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Good has had widespread critical acclaim for both its stimulating examination of human society and its unique use of music as well as drama. The spontaneous bursts of song and dance add a touch of humor and liveliness to the deeper issues brought forth.
Good opens with a lively waltz-y tune that sweeps the audience into the world of John Halder (Dennis Fox), a German man whose neurotic psyche fills his mind with music to augment the reality of his life. As an academic at the university and a lover of German literature, Halder is a harried man caught between the self-pitying insecurity of his wife Helen (Christine Bullen) and his ailing yet irritating mother (Carolyn Goelzer). What is portrayed is not necessarily that of an evil man, and there are few hints of what is to come for the cloistered academic.
In a Germany on the brink of the tumult that will come with the rising influence of Chancellor Hitler, the relationship between Halder and his Jewish friend, the eccentric Maurice (Jeff Guyton), captures the essence of the change that overcomes Halder. Halder becomes increasingly indifferent to the threat posed by the Nazis to his friend and all German Jews. Maurice’s increasing agitation that he “will be mowed down by machine guns” fails to gain sympathy from Halder.
Throughout Good, there is an overriding sense of surveillance since almost all the characters are present on the stage at the same time. Noticeably befitting the tempo of the times, such staging not only creates a surreal mixing of Halder’s world of fantasy and the ongoing events around him but also captures the heightened need for control on the part of the Nazis’ increasing ascension to power.
Struggling to make sense of the rapidly disintegrating situation in Germany, Halder allows the audience to be privy to the turbulent inner workings of his mind as he is increasingly tempted to join the ranks of the Nazis. We watch as a once traditional family man and critical scholar is taken in by the charismatic officer of the SS, Freddie (Ansel Brasseur). The rousing rendition of the song “Drink” epitomizes how the feelings of camaraderie, beautiful surroundings, and good food and drink can so easily sway one’s once stalwart convictions.
As Halder becomes increasingly immersed into the Nazi regime, he continues to downplay the terrible orders which he obediently follows. From turning logical somersaults in his mind to justify the book burnings of classical literature to becoming coldly logical about the euthanasia of the terminally ill and mentally handicapped, Halder’s blatant self-deception continues to spiral out of control.
Terrifyingly, Halder allows himself to be increasingly appropriated and taken in by the Nazis. At one point, Hitler’s (Ryan Oliveira) wild ravings are echoed verbatim by Halder. Reduced to simply a tool of propaganda for the Nazi regime, Halder sheds his final reservations and any semblance of being a “good” person by symbolically donning the Nazi uniform, which signals his complete transformation.
Now actively participating in the open prosecution of Jews and supervising the concentration camps at Auschwitz, Halder, a man many of whom would not define as evil, loses all moral misgivings against the atrocities of the Nazis. Finally depicted as proudly saluting Hitler before a massive Nazi swastika, Halder becomes a disturbing introduction into the difficulty of drawing the line between good and bad people.
Much of Good’s appeal lies in its resonance to the events splashed across newspapers today. We are inundated with the images of the atrocities allowed by seemingly “good” people, such as the Abu Ghraib scandal. Good tests our beliefs about our own moral character and hints that we too can just as easily be seduced to do evil.