The old adage goes that politics — along with sex and religion — should never be brought up in polite conversation. Though the various incarnations of Yale theater, from the glossy productions at the Rep to the free admission shows in college common rooms, may be a far cry from a strait-laced family dinner, large-scale student productions designed for University-wide consumption don’t often take strong political stances.
Yet in the Yale Dramatic Association’s fall Mainstage production of Tony Kushner’s “A Bright Room Called Day,” politics has a strong presence. Kushner’s depiction of a group of 1930s Berliners grappling with the crumbling of the Weimar Republic is heartbreaking and poignant. Kushner tenuously attempts to draw parallels between pre-Hitler Germany and modern America (the play was written about the Reagan administration, but the Dramat’s production is adapted to implicate President George W. Bush ’68).
Though certainly relevant to the current political climate, some of the show’s statements cause the tone of somber remembrance to be lost.
An example of this distraction — though she is an entertaining diversion — is Zillah (Lindsey Ford ’05), a strident little dynamo of negative energy who appears to be from the present day but who is intermittently inserted into the 1930s setting. As soon as she first interrupts the story to deliver a tirade against conservative politics, the play takes a step away from being a striking, solemn piece a la “The Pianist” and plants itself firmly in the category of political art a la the songs of Joan Baez.
This political tone may alienate those who do not hold a liberal view. When Zillah gets carried away and begins ranting about a “certain ex-frat boy” president and muses that Karl Rove may feel at home at one of Hitler’s rallies, it’s hard not to get caught up in the political dimensions of the play. Whether one adamantly agrees with them or strongly disagrees, the overt statements are sometimes made at the expense of the plot. At the very least, distraction results; at the worst, the viewer becomes offended at the harsh parallels and tunes out completely.
The story revolves around a group of friends whose political involvements and leanings vary widely. Agnes (Zoe Kazan ’05), an actress who begins the play without strong social values, dives wholeheartedly into the world of communism before espousing a disillusioned and low-key political stance following the fascists’ rise to power. The play is framed around her emotional progressions — from a giddy successful playwright and actor to an emotionless woman who forsakes both her husband and her friends. Kazan plays the character convincingly, inspiring audience sympathy as Agnes withstands various misfortunes and setbacks.
Interspersed with the action are video clips of political rallies, elections and scenes from 1930s Germany. These images are projected onto the angled ceiling of the forced perspective set, which consists of a walled-in suspended platform and a non-tangent panel representing the ceiling that angles upward like the lid of a box. The footage is accompanied by computerized-sounding, plaintive percussion interludes that sound something like post-“Kid A” Radiohead music for a funeral. The music is one of the play’s most effective elements: The discordance highlights the present devastation and ominously heralds further deterioration of the political landscape.
The production’s costumes are also strong. Amanda Walker DRA ’04 hits the mark with period dresses for the women and dapper suits for the men. Walker’s designs for the supernatural characters further enhance the play. Die Alte (Megan Stern ’06), a terrifying spirit that haunts Agnes, is made even creepier with the aid of her plaster-white face mask and alarming wig of stringy white hair.
The stage action takes place entirely inside Agnes’ apartment, with most of the conversations and meditations occurring in her well-adorned kitchen. Carly Zien ’08 and Edward Dunar ’08, who selected the props, even include amenities that the characters never touch, speak of or interact with to enhance the idea of an actual kitchen. Further, two doors leading out of Agnes’ kitchen open onto convincing hallway spaces, so that the flow of action is not interrupted by the constant movement on and off the stage.
“A Bright Room Called Day” is the only fall semester Dramat show that incorporates professionals in the crew. But while the production is certainly a marvel of impressive set design and effective synthesis of media, comparisons between the current political climate and that of 1930s Germany detract from the performances and dialogue onstage.
While some people who watch the play will agree wholeheartedly with the conflations, the controversial claims made in the play are bound to discomfit some audience members. Consequently, the universal appeal of this production is strained, and some viewers will feel uncomfortable, like somebody who didn’t expect to talk politics at a dinner party.
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”1050″ ]