“A Bright Room Called Day” made its UCI debut on Saturday, April 28, in the Robert Cohen Theatre.
This tragic one room play, set during the Nazi rise in the Weimar Republic of Germany, speaks to the tragic flaws of fanaticism. Most striking wasn’t the tragedy associated with Nazi fanaticism, but the tragedy of loss that happens when friends betray each other because of holding onto their communist ideologies paramount to their love of one another.
Scenic director Tyler Scrivener crafted the world of Agnes Eggling (Kayla Kearney) with immaculately succinct props, and special attention to detail. The set featured one dining table, one radio on a night stand, two lounge chairs, one large window to view the implied outside world and three doors for entrances and exits.
Additionally, two big thumbs up to Jacob P. Brinkman (lighting designer) along with Jack Bueermann and Hunter Moody (sound designers) for orchestrating amazing scene breaks by projecting black and white videos of Weimar Germany onto the window. These scene breaks served well to heighten dramatic tension by explaining the failing world around the main characters.
The play follows the lives of five friends, Agnes Eggling (Kearney), Gregor Bazwald (Gavin Mueller), Paulinka Erdnuss (Kelsey Deroian), Vealtninc Husz (Chris Mansa), and Annabella Gotchling (Grace Theobald) as their love and friendship collapses under the weight of their communist ideals in a Nazi world.
Agnes joins the German communist party in a flurry of emotions, guided by her one eyed, Hungarian lover, and former Russian revolutionary, Husz. Gotchling, a communist propagandist and friend of Agnes, also acts to introduce Agnes to the party and pushes her to become more involved with party activities. Agnes writes a successful skit for the communists, and all is well at first.
Soon, however, reality begins to set in. The Nazi’s rise to power places Agnes and her friends on a nervous precipice. Husz’s summoning of Satan (Xander Ritchey) marks the turning point of the play, and offers the question: who will stand up when death is the consequence?
Husz’s call to action, “A whole generation of washouts, history stands up, and we totter and collapse; weeping, moved but not sufficient,” acts as an overture for the play. With death as the consequence, all characters, save one, are moved to express their support only to abandon Germany at the first sign of trouble. Everyone leaves Agnes alone at her dining room table, despairingly ready to face the inevitable end.
Stunning acting by all involved. From Husz’s mournful collapse on the kitchen floor after being beaten by the Nazi’s, to Paulinka’s selfish swooning over Satan, to the antagonizing banter about lust between nearly abstinent Gotchling and lascivious Bazwald, the acting refined the tension of the play to a piercing edge.
Special thanks to Melody Rodriguez who filled in for Stashia Robbins as the phantom like character, Die Alte. Likewise, Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning playwright Tony Kushner’s poetic prose added the perfect structure for the actors to thrive within.
The only place the play became derailed was in its connection to contemporary society. The play forces the audience to call attention to how we could be idly witnessing a rise to dictatorship in our own times. Like much of contemporary commentary on politics, it falls prey to two fallacies: first, it’s heavy handed critiques of Donald Trump feels like preaching and removes viewers from the beauty of the play; second, to critique an ideology by preaching an ideology makes the play appear hypocritical.
Of the first fallacy, Zillah’s sporadic 10 minute monologues espousing her hatred of Trump and modern society were too heavy handed. These monologues interrupted times of great tension in the play, and Zillah’s political bashings were so stereotypical that they appeared almost comic, and lacked tact. Her character, an American Jewish graduate student who moves to Germany without packing any clothes or knowing a lick of German comes across as the ‘out of touch millennial liberal’ that the news media loves to talk about.
The second fallacy, an ideological preaching against ideologies, further detracts from the message. In a play about the dangers of ideologies, it’s safe to say that overbearing preaching would appear satirical. If overexposure causes desensitization, then the monologues of this play show how the belief that Donald Trump is the next Hitler can lead to an apathetic response to an otherwise heart wrenching tale of loss. Far from honoring the theatrical death of Agnes, the allusions of Trump to Hitler make the events of the play appear as a farce.
One by one, all characters except Agnes flee Germany into exile abroad. Agnes, who initially appears to be the least idealistic of her friends, ends up being the only one to remain in Germany to support her cause. Sadly, this tragic trust in the party’s ideals kills Agnes in the final scene. Alone in an unfriendly Berlin, Agnes chooses to kill herself rather than surrender her faith in communism by fleeing Germany. The real tragedy is how blind Agnes was by the ideal, and how fickle her friends were to abandon her.