the heart of darkness
Theology and Nazi Germany. For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German intellectual and ordained Lutheran pastor who was executed after joining a plot to assassinate Hitler, the dichotomy informed his life’s work. Even today, the question remains: How, exactly, is a religious person supposed to respond to immorality?
But try making this into a play. Douglas Huff, a professor of philosophy at Gustavus Adolphus College and a prolific playwright, has done just that, and Emil’s Enemies, presented last week by Theater work, grapples with a second dilemma: Is theology drama?
Of course, one can argue that Christianity and other religions are narratives that offer followers a connection to the universal. But in adapting the narrative of Bonhoeffer’s faith into “entertainment,” Huff falters, succumbing to the pressures of theatrical formula.
Emil’s Enemies— thumbs up or thumbs down? Thumbs up to Theater work for presenting a thought-provoking work in an attractive, intimate production. Thumbs down to Huff, who lets the plot to kill Hitler take over his play. What would Shakespeare have done? More poetry, most likely, more cri de coeur, and less time dealing with the lack of coffee at Christmas dinner and the SS officers who keep showing up like unwanted salesmen, sticking their feet in the door, and then their guns.
David Matthew Olson, who directed this production (and is Theater work’s artistic director), offered audiences two pages of program notes about the ideas, images, storytelling, and learning that happen in a darkened theater. What he was unable to produce, however, was a play that submerged deeply enough into the darkest night— the real-life drama of one Lutheran philosopher who found himself living in the worst of all possible worlds.
Nazi Germany and the atrocities of Hitler’s war are a (so far) unending source of material for writers, with good reason.
Emil’s Enemies, however, manages to unearth a fresh angle— offering a corner of history that is as unique as it is full of potential. Bonhoeffer was a brilliant, complicated figure, and his writings communicate his struggles with many of the themes that have proved central to new wars, in a new century. Too bad this play didn’t allow the philosopher his due — showing a hint at how darkness, for Bonhoeffer, merged with light.
Actors in the production included members of Theater work’s permanent company as well as newcomers. Jonathan Dixon, as Bonhoeffer, seemed genuinely pious, and his attempts to join into his brother-in-law’s military machinations were at once uncomfortable and admirable. Drago Sumonja, who played the brotherin-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, a frustrated military intelligence officer, offered considerable ease in a role that at times called for an artificially exaggerated masculinity — not easy to pull off in an American actor’s world, filled with bad examples of over-testosteronation.
Christine von Dohnanyi, played by Angela Janda Goldstein, and especially “Little Hans” (Ian Sproul) and Col. Roeder (Dan Friedman) were roles that mainly existed at the service of the plot, although the costumes, by Deborah Kruhm, made everyone look, at least, realistic.
Dylan Marshall, a senior at Monte del Sol Charter School, deserves credit for taking on the part of Everyman. His role as Bonhoeffer’s prison guard was the playwright’s opportunity to set out the dynamics of denial. Unfortunately, Marshall was not experienced enough as an actor to be able to add complexity to a character who was designed to be unremarkable, even stupid.
A skillful addition on the part of the director was the presence of unspeaking “witnesses” who were seated behind transparent wings (the set by Ilana Kirschbaum was masterful in its simplicity) and made silent crossovers between scenes. These, like quiet dances, added gravity and dimension to a play that at times wandered into greatness before veering back into cliché.