BWW Review: A BRIGHT ROOM CALLED DAY: A Call to Dissent From Flat Earth Theatre
A Bright Room Called Day
Written by Tony Kushner, Directed by Dori A. Robinson; Co-Producers, Coriana Hunt Swartz, Kevin Mullins; Stage Manager, Molly Burman; Tech Director, Emily Penta; Asst. Tech Director, Darren Cornell; Technical Advisor, Leigh Downes; Set Designer, Tracie Ewing; Costume Designer, Lila West; Lighting Designer, PJ Strachman; Props Designer, Emily Penta; Sound Designer, Monica Giordano; Projection Designer, Christine A. Banna; Makeup Designer, Juliet Bowler; Dramaturg, Elizabeth Singer Goldman; Magic Consultant, Evan Northrup; Violence Consultant, Marge Dunn; Graphic Design, Cara Chiaramonte, Jake Scaltreto; House Manager, Kristen Heider
Performances through October 14 by Flat Earth Theatre at The Black Box at the Mosesian Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA; Box Office 617-923-8487 or www.flatearththeatre.com
Flat Earth Theatre's theme for its 12th season is "Dissent," telegraphing their intent to explore questions of moral responsibility, the burden of citizenship, and the definition of complicity. These issues are front and center in Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning playwright Tony Kushner's 1987 play A Bright Room Called Day, a juxtaposition of the rise of the Nazi Party in 1930s Germany with the abject failure of the Reagan administration in dealing with the AIDS crisis in America. In 2017, there are lessons to heed from revisiting these watershed moments in history which emanate the character of the proverbial canary in the coal mine.
First and foremost, this is a disturbing piece of theater that is not easy to sit through. The set is a welcoming living room in a Berlin apartment, but there are small screens diagonally across from each other (so as to be visible from all parts of the audience) on which are projected scene titles, photographs, and informational slides. In between scenes of dialogue, the slides give us dates and list bullet points that mark the demise of the Weimar Republic and the progress of Hitler and his party. As the story advances, the slides become more alarming ("Big money support for a Hitler Chancellorship," "A dim and oppressive awareness among the people that the battle has turned," "Secret deals between powerful people in private rooms"), and one cannot help but feel that the words on the screen are hitting awfully close to home.
Kushner's characters are a group of five bohemian friends, a mélange of artists and activists enjoying life in relative safety in 1932 Berlin. Some of them favor the communists, while others bear no particular allegiance, and they watch the political scene with varying degrees of interest and understanding. The quintet is comprised of Agnes Eggling (Lindsay Eagle), a bit player in German films; Gregor Bazwald (Noah Simes), a homosexual who works in a government agency; Paulinka Erdnuss (Nancy Finn), a featured actress with a promising future in film; Annabella Gotchling (Juliet Bowler), an artist and graphic designer; and Vealtninc Husz (Isaiah Plovnick), a cinematographer and Hungarian exile in a relationship with Agnes. Alissa Cordeiro and Eric McGowan appear as a pair of communist party functionaries, and Lizzie Milanovich haunts Agnes' apartment as a woman who is either elderly or ghostly.
Interspersed with twenty-five scenes in Germany, Zillah Katz (Kim Klasner), a young woman in 1980s New York, interrupts (to use the playwright's terminology) the play to rail against Reagan, comparing him to Hitler. The distinction is that Reagan's inaction allowed countless deaths from the AIDS virus, whereas Hitler's actions extinguished the lives of six million Jews and other undesirable people. The segments with this character are not always easy to follow, but it is clear that Kushner's intent is to name evil when he sees it. When the play was originally produced, it was a bold move; in today's climate, it would seem to be a clarion call to speak truth to power.
Dori A. Robinson, who directed Flat Earth's Elliot Norton Award-winning Silent Sky (2017 Best Production - Small Theatre), directs A Bright Room Called Day with a sure hand, drawing powerful performances from her ensemble and tightening the screws of the tension, turn by turn. Seating the audience on all four sides of the stage in the intimate black box allows us to feel the discomfort and uncertainty of the characters, while also observing the reactions of other audience members. The design team (Tracie Ewing - set, PJ Strachman - lighting, Monica Giordano - sound, Christine A. Banna - projection, Emily Penta - props, Lila West - costume) contributes to the overall effectiveness of the production. Special effects (magic consultant, Evan Northrup) accompany the brief appearance of the devil (Matt Arnold) and Marge Dunn serves as violence consultant.
Anyone who has seen Angels in America knows that Kushner is unafraid of tackling hot issues, exploring them in depth, and crafting a complex dramatic formula for the stage production. A Bright Room Called Day preceded Angels by about seven years and does not rise to the same artistic level, but that should not diminish the power of its message. I'm not sure that it would have had the same impact a year ago, but it gets its zing from the zeitgeist. Flat Earth Theatre honors its mission statement with this thought-provoking piece.
Photo credit: Jake Scaltreto (Lindsay Eagle, Juliet Bowler, Nancy Finn, Noah Simes, Isaiah Plovnick)