Every so often the great circling wheels of creativity rolling through many fields of endeavor coincide in their paths — often due to some extreme political reality. Some cosmic or “world historical” force calibrates the timing and location of all this energy, and a spectacular flowering of theatrical art results. It happened in Chapel Hill in the 1970s with the Everyman Theater Company, and it is happening now with the Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern of Durham. LGP’s new production, Europe Central, takes its place beside Everyman’s forever-memorable The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny in the pantheon of brilliant, serious local theater.
Not since Brecht’s Mahagonny was staged in the second Cat’s Cradle (where the Skylight Exchange is now) has so much ambitious art been packed into so small a space. Europe Central is even more ambitious than Mahagonny was, because Europe Central wasn’t a play to start with. The play was crafted by LGP’s “playwrights-in-residence,” John Justice and Michael A. Smith, from William T. Vollman’s 2005 National Book Award-winning novel about art and artists during and immediately after World War II in Russian and Germany. Not having read the novel, I cannot speak to the quality of the adaptation; but I can attest that Justice and Smith have created a powerful, deeply theatrical script that successfully imagines fact and concretizes the imagined into a dream-world of passionately felt truths about the realities of art, love, the State (whichever one), death, war, and hope. “There is always a war,” cries out one anguished character near the end of the play. It is art like this that gives us strength to live through that truth.
It is possible that we in the Triangle are the luckiest people in America when it comes to theater. The array of talent assembled for this production by director Jay O’Berski — whose already-sterling reputation as a theatrical wizard should increase tenfold with this play — is as deep and wide as his imagination. The cast includes 13 onstage actors, plus a cellist, plus another set of people who appear in the mind-blowing “newsreels” created by Douglas Vuncannon. There are also puppets and masks; and two of the players also take turns as musicians, beyond their main roles. In fact, the entire cast sings at times.
But music is just one art among many in O’Berski’s complex scheme. There is more to look at in the astonishing set than can be absorbed in one viewing. The design (by O’Berski and Emily Hower) utilizes every square inch of space in all three dimensions, and creates a Russian side and a German side of the stage. Depending on which story is being told at the moment, we see a world defined by a huge sculptural whorl styled on Tatlin’s Constructivist Tower, Anna Akhmatova’s flying chair, and the typewriter-piano on which Shostakovich composes, or — across the barbed wire — the death chimneys and Caligari-like cabinet from which pops a somnambulistic Hitler who conflates his mad story with Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
The atmosphere of Europe Central is rich with lighting effects, in addition to the films and projections. The Typewriter Piano, a creation of the piercingly intelligent Greensboro artist-musician-inventor-activist Mark Dixon, includes a camera that projects the words typed while the sounds are created. In addition to the live music and onstage voices, there are voiceovers, soundscape textures, and other music. Even if there weren’t nearly two and one-half hours of excellent acting, this would be an amazing production.
The characters include three great artists of the 20th century, all of whom were tormented in various ways by the State. Dierdre Shipman was moving as the German painter, printmaker, and sculptor Käthe Kollwitz, who as much as any artist can, depicted the dreadful human toll of war and its associated brutalities. Jeffrey Scott Detwiler is stunningly good as composer Dmitri Shostakovich, struggling to survive with integrity among the Soviets; and as his muse Elena, Tamara Kissane glows — luminous and lovable, wounded and wise, she keeps us in human, rather than ideological, terrain.
The fabulously talented Dana Marks inhabits the soul of the tormented, heroic Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. As her character says to a friend who is saving Akhmatova’s poems by memorizing them, not only has she swallowed, she has digested Akhmatova. Marks has set some of the (translated) poems to music, and her remarkable performance is punctuated by her singing Akhmatova’s poetry while strumming fiercely on her guitar — while perched atop her very tall chair.
Lamont Reed’s bravura performance as Hitler is not to be missed. It is hard to say whether he is more surprising in the flesh or in the “newsreels.” Göring is played as a wolf by Mark Sadan, and could be a little creepier; but Dorrie Casey as German Communist Party worker/judge Hilde Benjamin exhibits all the creepiness necessary. She is a dark eminence grise and supplies the play with needed deep shadows, as black as those in Kollwitz’ lithographs.
Donnis Collins as Zoya, made a Soviet martyr by Fascist bullets, is ravishing. What a voice! Also possessed of a fine voice is Greg Hohn, who plays the ubiquitous Comrade A., the repressive, cruel, but not unsympathetic agent of the Soviet state. The rambunctious and irrepressible Lucius Robinson is perfect as Soviet documentarian Roman Karmen (Elena is his muse, too).
Emma Nadeau (also accordionist and stage manager), Meredith Sause (also drummer), and Steve Tell (also lighting designer) all shine in smaller roles; and the production would be much less than it is without the onstage presence and playing of celloist Shana Tucker-Williams.
Director Jay O’Berski has dedicated this production to the memory of the very great lady of arts and letters Daisy Thorp, who died in December after a lifetime making, partaking of, and promoting every art form to the benefit of the thousands whose circles intersected her own.
If O’Berski keeps on like this, people will be dedicating important passionate artworks to his memory — but we hope very much that we have another several decades to absorb the energy he and his players bring to our stages. If we remain lucky, and these people keep on producing the miracle that is local theater at its best, 30 years from now we’ll be saying to each other, “Remember Europe Central? That really marked the beginning of O’Berski’s mature work as a director — and what a show it was!”
Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern presents Europe Central Thursday-Saturday, Jan. 17-19, Wednesday-Saturday, Jan. 23-26 and Jan. 30-Feb 2, at 8:15 p.m.; and Sunday, Jan. 27, at 3:15 p.m. at Manbites Dog Theater, 703 Foster St., Durham, North Carolina. $12 Wednesday-Thursday and $17 Friday-Sunday, except $8 Student Rush Tickets (door sales only to students with ID). 919/682-3343 or http://www.tix.com/Schedule.asp?OrganizationNumber=150. Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern: http://www.littlegreenpig.com/. Manbites Dog Theater: http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org/. Europe Central (The Book): http://www.almabooks.co.uk/EuropeCentral/AboutEuropeCentral/AboutEuropeCentral.html [inactive 6/09] (Alma Books) and http://www.nationalbook.org/nba2005_f_vollmann.html (National Book Foundation).