BWW Reviews: Capital Fringe's FALLBEIL is Nearly Ready for Primetime
Sometimes examining the predicament of two people across time, space, and socio-political contexts can be a tricky business. There may be parallels in their experiences and common lessons to be learned, but treating them efficiently yet elegantly is something only many playwrights can strive to do. While Liz Maestri's Fallbeil, which completed a run at Capital Fringe this weekend, is not exactly perfect, she's gone a long way to deal with these complexities while also examining some challenging moral questions about life, death, and ending it all. Strong direction, acting, and professional design elements - generally of a higher quality than one would tend to see at many a Fringe show - make the play even more impactful.
The premise is simple yet complex. Else (Angie Tennant) has a difficult to decision to make. Her brother lies in a hospital bed still in a coma after sustaining major injuries in a modern day war in the Middle East. Still close with her brother's friend Karl (Josh Adams), she must decide whether to take him off life support. As she grapples with this decision she is reminded of another person who faced an early death as a result of 'bravery'. Sophie Scholl (Chelsey Christensen) and her brother Hans (Kevin Collins) are now known worldwide as the young German students behind the anti-Nazi/war movement, White Rose, which sought to compel other students to rise up in mass protest against the Third Reich regime. When they were caught distributing the politically-charged leaflets, they were brutally beheaded via a guillotine ('fallbeil') at the hands of the Gestapo.
In Maestri's creation, the ghost of Sophie comes to life and Else and the strong-willed young woman develop a friendship particularly after Else begins to frequent the graveyard in which Sophie and Hans are buried as she grapples with her own difficult choice. Sophie and Hans are somewhere between life and death and with Sophie's help, Else learns about Sophie's moral plight and the life she led up to her early death. From her relationship with boyfriend Fritz (Matthew Hirsh) to her political activities - which unfortunately intersected - she exposes all while helping Else come to terms with what to do about her brother. Ultimately, all involved ponder when to traverse the gap between life and death, the meaning of death, and whose choice it is to end it.
While Maestri displays some tendencies to get bogged down in some philosophical discussions about the meaning of mortality that slow the story down in parts, she's ultimately exceedingly successful in illuminating and leveraging the parallel life/death experiences at play without it all seeming too forced or contrived. She also masterfully and purposefully blends elements of realism with fantasy achieving a nice balance. Likewise, her well-rounded present day and historical characters are instrumental in helping the audience care about their predicament and see them less as devices or pawns to explore difficult themes and questions. This is especially evident as Sophie 'relives' her trial and ultimately tragic death just as Else too is nearing the end of her time with her brother.
While the strength of Maestri's play is a fundamental reason why it's so easy to be drawn into the story, the strong cast under the direction of Nick Vargas is also integral to this success. Christensen is able to balance Sophie's relative youth and inexperience with her bravery and strong commitment to deeply held ideals about both German society and humanity more broadly. Tennant's take on Else allows us to easily see how conflicted she is as she treads the line between anger and despair, and rational thinking and irrational thinking. Adams, Collins, and Hirsh also prove to be valuable contributors to fleshing out the details about the girls in their lives and helping us get better insight into their worlds.
Stephen Strosnider's set is instrumental in allowing Maestri to bridge the time gap at play in the story while highlighting the importance of German history to the piece. Pictures of Hitler and other important German places/figures combined with some multi-purpose crates (doubling as chairs, hospital beds, graves, and more) make the set both utilitarian while reinforcing the ambiguity of the tale as well. Costumes (Jennifer Salter), sound/compositions (Palmer Hefferan) and lighting (Chris Holland) also are instrumental in helping Maestri meld the two worlds.
This is a difficult piece, but one which has undeniable promise. With some tweaks here and there, I think it could be ready for primetime at an area theatre. Washington DC Artistic Directors? Hope you all took a look at this one.
Running Time: 80 Minutes