A review of “The Art of Bad Men,” about German POWs serving as farm labor in Minnesota. A Map Theatre production, directed by Kelly Kitchens, it runs through Oct. 17.
Few people today realize that during World War II, 700 prison camps for Axis soldiers existed within the U.S. Most of the 425,000 prisoners were shipped here from Europe as cargo on “Liberty Ships” returning from missions to deliver war materials to overseas troops. Even Seattle had a prison camp at Fort Lawton.
“The Art of Bad Men,” directed by Kelly Kitchens and written by Seattle writer Vincent Delaney, takes us inside such a camp and focuses on three German prisoners and their guard. Situated in the vast farm fields of Minnesota, this camp, like others, used the prisoners as farm laborers. Here, the characters work in the sugar-beet fields, substituting for the local men off fighting in Europe.
The prisoners are paid, fed well, given allotments of cigarettes and treated with dignity. Harvey, the happy-go-lucky guard played with an engaging sweetness by Brandon Ryan, befriends his charges, and does what he can to make their lives comfortable.
‘The Art of Bad Men’
Through Oct. 17 at Inscape Arts, 815 Seattle Blvd. S., Seattle (800-838-3006 or brownpapertickets.com).
Ben Burris as amiable prisoner Gerhardt brings a lively charm to his role. A violinist before being conscripted, he plays the guitar in the camp and has a carefree attitude. He even manages to find an American love interest. Sean Schroeder as Franz, the teenage prisoner who longs to be an actor, is innocent and sweet.
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Then there is Kurt (Benjamin McFadden). Filled with Nazi bravado and anger, he sees his fellow prisoners as misfits, unworthy Germans. As war news filters into the camp, he refuses to believe German defeat is possible. Word of the Berlin bombings causes the others to fear for their families.
Kurt steadfastly maintains his belief that victory will come to the superior German people. Then when shown pictures of Buchenwald, Kurt denies the film is real as the others cry, become physically ill and beg forgiveness. It’s powerful stuff.
What doesn’t work well is the selection of Molière’s “The Miser” as the play that young Franz wants to produce. It seems to have nothing to do with this production except to let us know that, yes, prisoners produced plays during WWII.
There are few special effects and little theatrical wizardry in this production that plays on a small and modest stage. Simple sheets of white paper with black silhouettes of guard towers and prison buildings serve as scenery. Barbed wire encircles structural columns. Nothing elaborate here, yet the production works.
It reminds us of how easily fanaticism can overwhelm reason, and shows the diversity of attitudes about Hitler’s cause even within his own army.