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A Bright Room Called Day explores politics across generations

Mark Witte | Thursday, November 15, 2007

“A Bright Room Called Day,” written by Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”), opens with its characters gathered around a table, drinking to celebrate the New Year. However, by the play’s close, only one of those characters remains.

The setting is Berlin. It’s New Year’s Eve 1932, and the lives of a couple, Agnes Eggling (Jennifer Betancourt) and Vealtninc Husz (Brian DeSplinter), and their three friends – Annabella Gotchling (Madison Liddy), Gregor Bazwald (Luke Cieslewicz), and Paulinka Erdnuss (Erin O’Shea) – are about to undergo massive change, as is the Republic.

As the New Year begins, the Weimar Republic, holding an extremely shaky power over the country, is meeting strong opposition from Hitler and his fascist Nazis, as well as opposition from the KPD, Germany’s Communist Party. All three parties are rallying the masses and vying for power. Within six months, the Weimar Coalition is defeated. Within another month, the Nazi party takes the majority of seats in the German Parliament. Weimar Coalition and KPD members attempt to unify against the Nazis, but the plot ultimately fails, and Hitler is elected Chancellor of Germany in January 1933. It is in this period of turmoil that the hopes and dreams of the characters rise and fall.

United in their distaste for the Nazi party, the play’s characters watch helplessly as fascism descends upon them. The play centers on their helplessness while raising questions about what an individual can do against the surging tide of unwanted political change. Despite this overbearing, oppressive gloom, the characters are a delightful bunch.

Husz, a one-eyed revolutionary banned from Hungary and kicked out of Russia, now making films for the Germans – who he claims are all insane – is delightful in his anxious and epic take on life.

Gotchling is a hardworking member of the KPD, and her occasional arguments with Bazwald, a homosexual sex fiend, make for sharp comical relief.

Paulinka is a famous actress, evidently in love with the idea of selling one’s soul to the Devil, yet holding a supreme distaste for “Faust.” She doesn’t seem to understand the times, but nevertheless, she makes her opinion known: “Psychoanalysis makes more sense than Communism.”

Agnes, the focus of the tale, is a character perched on the border of joining the KPD and just plain staying out of the whole mess. Her character evokes a great amount of sympathy as she tries so desperately to hold onto a Germany she once knew and believes will soon return. There is a scene in the play where she tries to think of revolutionary lines, shouting, “The world is perched on the brink of…” Yet, she cannot seem to finish the sentence. Whether she doesn’t know how to end it or whether she chooses to stay ignorant of the answer may be the underlying theme of the play.

But this is not simply a tale of Germany and Hitler. From the corner of the stage, behind a stack of books and a wooden desk, Zillah Katz (Juliana Halloran) sits throughout the duration of the play, reading what appears to be the story we are watching. Only she doesn’t just read. Before the story is over in November of 1933, there will be eight interruptions from the radical, paranoid, Reagan-hating Katz, who actually lives about 50 years in the future in New York City. Her interruptions, which are more like tirades, carry an excessive amount of political zeal as she rips on the Reagan administration, even calling him the devil and comparing him to Hitler. Fortunately, the tirades carry enough jolly humor to overshadow their extreme politics.

The acting is entertaining and engrossing. Robin Witt’s direction is wonderful, and on the whole, a learning experience. Slideshows detailing the history of the period flash during scene transitions, keeping the audience occupied and informed. There is also a quite impressive show of theatrical spectacle about midway through the play when Husz literally calls up the Devil from beneath the ground. If the foreboding descent of Germany into evil has not been sufficiently foreshadowed by this point, the Devil makes it clear when he informs his stunned onlookers, “I have taken up temporary residence in this country.”

At one point of the play, Husz says, “This age wanted heroes. It got us instead.”

“A Bright Room Called Day” examines what it’s like to be that “instead.” Though it seeks to push a heavy political message, it is touching in its portrayal of hope, overshadowed by Hitler’s dark, rising sun.

Contact Mark Witte at mwitte@nd.edu