The two worlds of “Valhalla”

Opening this Thursday night at the Whitney Theater, “Valhalla” by Paul Rudnick ’77 follows the lives of two characters from vastly different backgrounds, living nearly a century apart from one another and connected only by their common love of beauty and their desire to pursue it at any cost. The play juxtaposes the life of James Avery, a young man from Texas during the World War II era, with that of Ludwig, a prince of Bavaria during the 19th century. The production is a Theater Studies senior project for Spencer Klavan ’14, Maggie Ditre ’14 and Irene Casey ’14, who spoke with the News about their experience creating and working on this project, as they head into the show’s last week of rehearsal.

Q: How and why did you three decide on this particular play to stage for your senior projects? Did you consider other plays?

Casey: At one point it felt like we considered every play that has ever been written, since we searched for a really long time — about three months — for the right play. We needed a play that was challenging for directors, had an acting role that Spencer would be excited about and a lot of opportunity for set design, so we had a long list of criteria. We just pulled “Valhalla” along with many other plays from the shelves in the Haas Arts Library. Spencer and I read it at about the same time and I remember getting a text from him right after he finished reading it and as I was about to start reading it. I asked him what he thought of it and he said “I can’t tell you yet, text me when you’re done reading.”

Q: The play switches between two drastically different settings — pre-WWII Texas and 19th century Bavaria — how can one switch back and forth between settings on one stage?

Casey: The set is very much a mixture of both worlds. The only way of distinguishing between the two is through the actors themselves — where they are standing and what they are doing. But the distinction between the two worlds is surprisingly clear sometimes. For example, Spencer is in every scene that takes place in Texas so wherever he is on stage would be the part that is supposed to be set in Texas. And some objects remind you of one of these places.

Ditre: The objects you see on stage are not rigidly divided into ‘Texas’ objects and ‘Bavaria’ objects — many of them are things you would see in many different types of environment. Only some things specifically remind you of one of the two worlds. For example, the swan and castle statuettes would be reminiscent of Ludwig and Bavaria.

Q: How would you compare the two main characters, James Avery and Ludwig of Bavaria?

A Klavan: James is utterly out of place in his own milieu. He is gay, he is yearningly aesthetic. He loves flowery, abstract, gorgeous things and none of that exists around him. So we see him really struggling against his environment. Ludwig has this desire to build all these beautiful things, like his castles, while James likes to go and throw himself in different situations just to try and experience the beauty around him. But the kind of extravagance that Ludwig creates is also the type of beauty that James wants in his ideal world, but that type of beauty does not exist in Dainsville, Texas. That is why he needs to get out of that place.

Casey: Ludwig is also gay at a time when that was not acceptable. The playwright thought of them as puzzle pieces that lock together, so they are not the same person but they complement each other’s personalities. What they share is this love for beauty. That is what drives their lives.

Q: What are the major themes explored in the play? What is the significance of exploring these themes today, here at Yale?

Casey: One of the biggest questions presented in the play is the tension between giving into your wildest dreams and doing your duty or doing what society wants you to do. Ludwig has a struggle between his obsession of love and beauty … and his duty to his country as well as his religion. Eventually he gives into his love of beauty and on one hand you can say he was a terrible king because he lost a large war for his country, but on the other hand, Bavaria’s largest source of income is tourism surrounding these castles that he built.

Q: How would you characterize the play’s historical element? Would you say the two settings presented are historically accurate?

A Klavan: A large part of the factual details in the play are historically accurate, even in this fictional town in Texas. For example, James goes to ‘reform school,’ which was a popular thing in Texas at the time. And the socioeconomic status of people like James and his parents is very close to what your average person in Texas at the time would look like. It’s a well-researched play.

Casey: But at the same time, both of the main characters’ personalities are supposed to be different from what one would expect from people of their respective eras.

Q: What is the significance of staging a play like this at Yale, at this time?

A Klavan: We, as seniors, are speaking to many people in our class that are currently being asked questions that oftentimes pit realism against idealism as they are graduating, especially people in the theater community. We are told to follow our dreams all through high school, but now we face the question of ‘are you actually willing to do that?’ The play asks that question and explores what the cost of such decisions may be.

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