Ganesh Versus the Third Reich: Theater Review
A high-concept story of Vishnu sending her son to confront evil and save mankind confronts the moral hazards of making theater.
Fresh from its engagement at New York¹s Public Theater, Ganesh Versus the Third Reich is the latest internationally touring production of Back to Back Theatre. Based for 25 years in the provincial city of Geelong, the company is comprised of a troupe of actors with disabilities, who, working collaboratively with artistic director Bruce Gladwin and invited guests, evolve their shows out of collective inspiration, research and improvisation.
In this 2011 concoction, a group that mirrors Back to Back itself (the actors play characters with their own first names) attempts to mount a play based on the high concept of Vishnu sending her embodied son, the elephant-headed Ganesh, to confront the Nazi evil and save mankind. An outside director (Luke Ryan) attempts to whip the confabulation into theatrical shape.
However, this particular fantasy is no sort of Inglourious Basterds pop conceit. Instead, the prospective players criticize the temerity of appropriating the Hindu deity for commercial exploitation and bridle and then rebel at the increasingly overbearing director¹s efforts to coerce them to behave in manners befitting committed players. The subject becomes instead the moral hazards of making theater at all, questioning the validity of text and challenging the ethics of representation.
The irony is that to the extent the abortive play is realized, it is magical to the utmost. A scene of Ganesh having his splendid elephant head examined phrenologically by a fascinated Dr. Mengele (played by the director) vibrates with transgressive invention, and an extended trip on the Berlin Express is a triumph of both insinuating suggestion and scenic art out of gossamer means.
One supposes it might have been more courageous to have actually endeavored to realize the intended production, however risky, rather than critique it with intricate and long-winded self-examinations. The play may be scrupulous about not resolving its many intellectual tensions, but for one so obsessively concerned with problems of representation, it can be discouragingly blithe about its own representational quandaries: calling the absent audience in the rehearsal to task for being drawn to attending a "freak show" tends to beggar the question of how this production itself straddles confronting and avoiding the distinctly different speech, diction and behaviorism of its cast, keeping its provocations determinedly within the boundaries of respectful correctness.
Venue: Freud Playhouse, Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA (runs through Jan. 27)
Cast: Mark Deans, Simon Laherty, Scott Price, Brian Tilley & Luke Ryan
Director: Bruce Gladwin. Show Director: Kate Sulan
Devisors: Gladwin, Deans, Marcia Ferguson, Nicki Holland, Laherty, Sarah Mainwaring, Price, Sulan, Tilley & David Woods
Set designer: Gladwin
Lighting designer: Andrew Livingston, Bluebottle
Costume designer: Shio Otani
Sound designer: Marco Cher-Gibard
Music: Jóhann Jóhannsson
Musical supervision and direction: Bruce Barnes