Several years before Tony Kushner set the theatrical world on fire with “Angels in America," he ruminated on similar concerns in “A Bright Room Called Day,” now being revived in Seattle by the dauntless theater ensemble The Williams Project.
Several years before Tony Kushner set the theatrical world on fire with “Angels in America” — his internationally acclaimed, two-part “fantasia on national themes” — he ruminated on similar concerns in “A Bright Room Called Day,” now being revived in Seattle by the dauntless theater ensemble The Williams Project.
I first saw this early, less successful Kushner play in its world premiere at San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre in 1987. It centers on a group of artists in 1930s Weimar Republic-era Berlin and explores, with compassion and criticism, the dilemma of leftists unable at first to comprehend, then later to stem, the tsunami of Nazi fascism engulfing their society. Juxtaposed with the Berlin scenes are bursts of invective from an enraged modern leftist — initially over former President Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra dealings and failure to swiftly combat the AIDS epidemic.
Later Kushner revised “A Bright Room Called Day” with more timely barbs at the policies of President George H.W. Bush and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher when his script was mounted in London and New York. But prominent theater critics savaged the play for ostensibly inferring that the misdeeds of modern-day leaders were comparable to Hitler’s systematic genocide of millions.
My problem with the initial San Francisco production was its rhetorical turgidity. Kushner’s bountiful intellect was much in evidence. But his characters came off largely as gloomy stick figures defined by their political positions. They didn’t converse, they declaimed.
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Happily that’s not the case in Ryan Guzo Purcell’s more intimate, animated staging at the Hillman City Collaboratory (a community workspace and social justice center near Columbia City). And these days, the play seems more in tune with our own volatile political culture.
As Agnes, an actor whose cozy apartment is a gathering place for her circle, Lateefah Holder exudes a warm, engaging presence that gradually calcifies into rigid terror as the Berlin outside her flat grows more perplexing and dangerous.
We first meet Agnes and her friends celebrating New Year’s (1932) in high spirits. Her filmmaker lover Husz (a vigorously affecting Nick Edwards), their uncloseted gay friend Gregor (Grant Chapman), the militant artist Annabella (Dedra D. Woods) and others banter about art and politics.
“I won’t join the Communist Party, because they won’t let me wear mascara,” declares Gregor, while Husz views Germany’s economic depression as “the preconditions for revolution.”
But dreams of an idealized Marxist revolt are soon eclipsed with the cruel, calculated “National Socialist” regime of the Nazis. In subsequent years, Hitler’s popularity swells, leftists and Jews are arrested and deported, and a smoky odor infuses the apartment as the Reichstag (the German Parliament building) burns nearby in an arson fire that the Nazis exploited to establish their police state.
“I feel like I’m in a film, all the time. A newsreel,” says the increasingly anxious Agnes. As her friends tangle with the Nazi authorities, join the resistance and plan their escapes, she is paralyzed by fear into inaction.
The play incorporates awkward but interesting strokes of surrealism, in the form of a creepy, ghostlike figure (Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako) who haunts Agnes, and an odd, nondescript businessman introduced as the devil (Brandon J. Simmons). Meanwhile, the contemporary character of Zillah (Elise LeBreton) rails at American injustices, past and present, and creates an ongoing, makeshift newsreel of historical clippings via an overhead projector.
Zillah’s rants are not only grating, they are too often loudly incomprehensible. And the sightlines in the playing area of what is really a large multipurpose room are not ideal.
What makes Purcell’s staging worthwhile is the vivacity and conviction of the Berlin scenes, as the actors flesh out and add fervor to Kushner’s characters. Though it’s facile to draw a true parallel between Hitler’s Germany and our own republic, the complex questions the play raises about fight versus flight, complacency versus action are certainly worth pondering today. And it is fascinating to trace how Kushner’s unique theatrical gifts have developed, from a date with a nebbishy German devil, who personifies the phrase “the banality of evil,” to the miraculous rendezvous with “angels” in America.
“A Bright Room Called Day,” by Tony Kushner. Through Nov. 18; The Williams Project at Hillman City Collaboratory, 5623 Rainier Ave. S., Seattle; pay what you can (reservations recommended), $30-$50 supporter tickets also available; 206-494-5364, thewilliamsproject.org
Correction: Dedra D. Woods is the actor on the right in a cast photo from “A Bright Room Called Day.” Due to incorrect information provided to The Seattle Times, the original caption was incorrect.