Much like the company’s 2010 offering Troilus and Cressida (under their previous name One Shot Productions, a name that clearly isn’t accurate now that they’re taking a 2nd shot)… you walk into the Odd Duck Studio for this year’s Handwritten Productions show, Vitriol, and are asked to drop a Pay What You Will offering into a metal chalice while being handed a program. Look in the program and you’ll see a lot of the same names of helped produce last year’s show: Jake Sherman, J.H. Welch, Tom Dewey, Stephen Scheide, Jeremy Thompson, et al.
What’s also clear up front is the growth from last year’s show. Welch’s set, while still a painted wood two step backdrop fronting a spartan stage, has a much more polished design. Emily Leong’s lighting is less dusty, more clear and sharper despite utilizing many of the same instruments. Even the program and its bios offers a prouder, more confident presentation. They even learned from last summer’s heat wave (which rendered the space a sweltering sauna) and had a network of fans and open doors throughout the Odd Duck give the space a surprisingly pleasant coolness.
From what little intel I’ve gathered from previous runs of this show, they aren’t cramming the house like Troilus consistently did last summer, but the turnout is consistent and the audiences are engaged. Having caught exiting patrons en route to a couple 10:30 Odd Duck shows, the audiences have walked out enthusiastic and pleased with the two hour show, an encouraging sign as I came in Friday night to catch the show.
Jake Sherman’s play itself centers on written accounts of the Munich Post during Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1920′s-1930′s Germany. The company was focused on telling a side of the Nazi Germany that gets lost in the main story of WWII, Hitler’s dictatorship and the Holocaust: HOW a guy like Hitler was able to sell himself to otherwise sane and rational German citizens and ascend to power, how advocacy journalists at the Munich Post saw warning signs in Hitler’s movement, and how the Nazis rose to power anyway and the press was eventually suppressed and (literally) railroaded to the same fate as the Jews, gypsies, gays and other perceived enemies of the party.
A lot goes on in this convoluted story so I’ll do my best to summarize but may miss or misstate some points: The story centers on Martin Gruber (David S Klein), editor of the Post, working with right hand man Erhaud Auer (Ryan Spickard) on their journalistic efforts to turn the tide of public sentiment against the counterculture Nazi browncoats movement during the 20′s and 30′s. Key reporter Edmund Goldschagg (Stephen Scheide) forms relationships with Nazi informants during his investigation while at odds with his more conventional peer, Julius Zerfass (Jeremy Thompson). Brenan Grant slips into and out of several necessary side characters during the performance, while Spickard during one moment slips out of Erhaud into a Swastika armband for a very impassioned cameo as Die Fuhrer himself.
- Jake Sherman’s play impeccably flips back and forth in time, acting as a mystery and knowing how much to tell us and when. Flashbacks often suck but I didn’t even realize this was a flashback-themed play until close to the end. The story is very well shown and the use of time jumping is smart. Even when it seems like it just told us too much too soon, it turns out there’s enough left unsaid that you later realized that’s exactly how much you needed to know.
- The production utilizes a latticework of split scenes, narrative speeches to the audience (4th wall speeches), and Glass Menageriean narrative breaks into and out of the action. Switches between scenes and monologues were subtlely indicated by faint fading of the lights. Whether written that way or a directorial decision by Tom Dewey, having narrators sliding into and out of scenes was an excellent choice that helped the production maintain a brisk, crackling pace as a whole.
In fact, I don’t think a single scene dragged in the entire two hour show, and that’s something I can’t say about a lot of shows I like, let alone most shows in general. Pace is a big part of a good show, and this cast does an excellent job of keeping us on a ride while keeping the integrity of the important moments.
- Though all the key characters shared the space, Klein’s curmudgeonly growling Gruber was the thematic constant, the lecturer to the audience that explained to us the importance of the Post’s efforts. The consuming passion of Klein’s 4th wall oratories captured not just your attention but an illustration of the spirit and moral purpose that motivated the paper’s actions, showing why the paper didn’t just take a knee in the fact of sociopolitical threats on their lives. Klein’s verbal crescendos snuck up on you, at times more well placed than others: In his speeches they were gold though sometimes during dialogue it seemed random and misplaced. Klein also at times garbled some phrases that we lost.
But that overstates two minor quibbles on a bold performance that stood toe to toe with a set of bold performances.
- On the flip side, Ryan Spickard’s crystal clarity of voice, motion and dramatic choices as Erhaud is strikingly commanding. His Erhaud is presentational, sure, a choice lending itself to those qualities. But many try and few are able to do so as inambiguously clear as Spickard does here, in a play no less that with so many convoluted angles and storylines makes it very easy for an audience member to get lost in the details. Sherman’s writing does a good job of keeping the ideas clear, but Spickard’s Erhaud keeps our focus at ease with such polished majordomo-like skills.
- As Edmund, Stephen Scheide’s 4th wall speeches and his Edmund’s relationships with key characters are a big lynchpin to this entire show. Scheide’s greatest strength, his iron clad focus in the moment, hooks you right in. Scheide’s Edmund stands his ground like a man, but the emotion in key moments clearly tries to overtake him. Scheide’s control and commitment as an actor in such a dichotomy is excellent, finding drama and grabbing our attention in moments of stillness and control rather than flying around the stage. All these performances are solid, but it’s his that will probably stick with you most after the show’s over.
- Jeremy Thompson’s Julius was a somewhat emotionally understated version of Edmund, though with a more youthful enthusiasm that gave the newsroom scenes a colorful contrast and, in some cases, foil to the veteran caginess of the other characters.
- Brenan Grant had the tough job of playing not just several minor characters, but characters that all had key emotional moments in the play: A paranoid Nazi informant trying to keep his emotional walls up as he forms a kinship with a reporter, a butthurt plaintiff in a heated slander court case, a ruthlessly compliant Nazi soldier making an arrest, a one-time friend turned Nazi soldier now commissioned to arrest his friend, a vengeful mugger, and the like. Grant took to all of these with a startling focus, in each moment making you completely forget the other characters he just played, finding the form, M.O. and attitude for his new face and fitting right into character as he takes stage for his next task.
Yes, any good ensemble supporting actor should be able to do this, but Brenan’s job in this show is particularly exemplary in that none of his characters looked too much like his others.
- True to form from a group with a taste for stage combat, there are a lot of brief fight scenes in this play. The play has no official fight choreographer but given most of this group’s experience it’s likely they put their chops together and crafted those moments as a unit. The smattering of punches, struggles and moments of physical restraint are very clean, very well placed and (sometimes literally) really hammer home the dramatic tension. Every such moment looked, from our angle, strikingly real.
- Despite the serious subject matter, the play has a surprising sense of humor, and though there were a few flattish moments that actors occasionally tried (in vain) to horse-whip laughter out of with stage laughs, there were several incidentally funny moments that naturally grew from the moments. I’m pretty sure Jake Sherman didn’t write any part particularly for laughs or anything more than, “Huh, that’s a kind of clever thing to say.” The actors’ commitment to the moment from wire to wire played a large part of making those moments funny and for that they deserve credit.
- I mentioned the general lighting, but I really liked the use of darkness of spotlighting in key scenes, especially some of the early undercover and alley scenes with Erhaud and Julius. It didn’t leave us guessing, and yet helped set an ominous mood for those scenes.
This is honestly a well done show, and though it not only doesn’t get a lot of press but is also about a somewhat sensitive theme, it may not draw the attention of a sexier or more popular local production. But I encourage you to come see Vitriol and don’t come in expecting a downer show. This production does anything but bring you down. Even though concentration camps and the Holocaust are inevitably invoked, it doesn’t dwell long on those subjects, realizing you already know full well about those realities and don’t need to be told what happened there.
Though it takes place during the rise of the Nazi party and explores the inner workings of how exactly Hitler grew to power (not with an iron fist but through persuasive manipulation of public opinion after his country’s humiliating defeat in WWI), this is in truth a story about the power of misinformation, journalists who battle against it, and the relationships that formed and grew as a group men tried to stop a political movement only to find out they were piling sandbags in front of a tsunami.
The show’s smart, the performances are smart, and you’ll get to see what theatre looks like when people ignore the egoism that theatre often falls prey to and focus instead on working together to tell a great story.
Handwritten Productions’ Vitriol runs this Saturday (7/16/11) as well as next Thursday through Saturday (7/21/11-7/23/11) at the Odd Duck Studio on 1214 10th Avenue just south of E Union St. Admission is pay what you will, and provided you’re not struggling I’d encourage you to drop them at least $10. Parking in Capitol Hill is always an adventure, and bussing in is always easy, though I’ll note the #2 bus stops just a block away.