Encore Michigan

UDM shines ‘A Bright Room Called Day”

Review November 15, 2017 Tanya Gazdik

DETROIT — It’s hard to believe that Tony Kushner’s critically acclaimed drama A Bright Room Called Day is more than 30 years old.

Written as a reaction to the Reagan presidency, Kushner could not have guessed how much even more timely the issues raised would be in 2017 in our current divisive and disturbing political climate.

That said, it’s not an easy play to watch. It makes you uncomfortable. It makes you think. It doesn’t leave you feeling uplifted. But that’s ok. Not all theatre experiences are supposed to be light-hearted and comedic. Happy ending are not automatic.

The Detroit Mercy Theatre Company does a remarkable job tackling this challenging play. The acting and production is first-rate across the board, with a few notable standouts. The lighting and sets are among the best I have seen at the Marlene Boll Theatre. They are the perfect backdrop for the various levels of angst in each and every character.

If you are unfamiliar with Kushner’s critically acclaimed work, A Bright Room Called Day, it examines how fascism overtook Germany in the 1930s.  It examines unstable times in concert with alternative ideologies. It includes scenes set in 1990, slightly in the future from when the play was written. Now, in retrospect, 1990 looks far less turbulent than it seemed at the time and what is represented in the play.

The plot follows a group of artists and political activists struggling in 1930’s Berlin. The script is poetic and nuanced and often lovely to listen to, even when the subject matter is grim.

The play is directed by Jamie Warrow, an actress who previously played the lead character, Agnes Eggling, in another production. It runs 2 hours and 40 minutes including a 15-minute intermission

The cast is a mix of resident professionals with students. It includes professionals Emily Hasse as Agnes, Richard Payton as Baz, Keira Elyse as Zillah, Greg Grobis as Roland, Mike Suchyta as Herr Swetts, and Linda Rabin Hammell as Die Alte. Students include Dalton Hahn as Husz, Savannah Wright as Gotchling, Sidney Mains as Paulinka, Christian Plonka as Malek, and Roman D’Ambrosio as Traum.

Payton as Baz, the self-proclaimed “homosexual,” offers what little comic relief there is with a few flip lines. However, his character and what happens to him is no laughing matter. Berlin in the early 1930s was famous for its progressiveness in accepting and supporting gay and transgendered communities, until the Nazis came into power. Baz works at Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute of Sexual Research, which was ahead of its time conducting the first sex-reassignment surgeries. In February 1933, Hitler began purging Germany of this community. It’s startling how much recent events like the attempts to prohibit transgendered soldiers from serving in the military parallel Hitler’s rejection of the community in Germany and the reversal to the strides the institute had made.

Mains does a fine job playing the overly dramatic and self-absorbed Paulinka and Hahn is perfectly cast as the rebellious Hungarian. Suchyta very nearly steals the show as Herr Swetts, otherwise known as the devil. His performance is both disturbing and tantalizing. It’s like driving past a horrible car crash, you can’t avert your eyes and you almost feel ashamed for being unable to look away. The video projections behind the set is especially powerful in this scene, showing graphic illustrations of a hideous and destructive devil.

The production team features Assistant Professor Melinda Pacha as the scenic and costume designer, Seth Amadei as lighting designer, Alan Devlin as technical director, and Associate Professor Greg Grobis as managing director.

A nice bonus is the post-show “Talk Back” Act 3 discussions that are offered. After the Sunday show, members of the production team delved into the creative side of the play. The Nov. 12 Act 3 will focus on “Politics and the Human Psyche” and will include docents from the Holocaust Memorial Center and Ph.D. candidates from the Detroit Mercy School of Clinical Psychology. They will discuss the realities and human reactions to fear, stress and change in the world of 1930s Germany and our own time and place.

The Act 3 talkback is an opportunity to process some of the lingering questions and reactions to the performance. It’s nice to reflect and take a minute before reengaging with the reality of 2017, such as they are. This is a play that will stay with your after you leave it, for better or worse.

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Week of 6/18/2018

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