the heart of dark­ness

Pasatiempo - - Pasa Reviews - Emil’s En­e­mies James A. Lit­tle The­ater, Feb. 26 — MichaelWade Simp­son

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.

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