Europe Central

Little Green Pig
Manbites Dog Theater
Through Feb. 2

Fair warning: Europe Central is one of those shows that compels critics like me to dash madly through fields of wild adjectives in the attempt to describe it. Overtly, audaciously ambitious in its scope, oversized in its aesthetics and design, John Justice and Michael Smith’s stage adaptation manages to be critically incisive as it analyzes the relationships between art, artists, people of conscience and the totalitarian state without losing the poignancy of its subjects’ lives.

Sometimes pointed, sometimes sprawling, sometimes shattered in its form, the connections it makes across the vast, dark cultural switchboard that author William Vollmann posited in his 2006 National Book Award-winning novel seem potent in places, haphazard in others. In its way, the final result is as much a crazy quilt as the cover on the conjoined on-stage beds of composer Dmitri Shostakovich, Russian filmmaker Roman Karmen and their shared muse and partner, Elena Konstantinovskaya.

For all that, strong threads bind these characters together. From the start, we note the voracious appetite nations have for images, words and music that can dress up or mask their own designs. In the show’s first moments, a child’s voice recites a list of phrases: hetorical fig leaves like “a correct decision” or “my unalterable will,” carefully designed to transform actions beyond question, beyond judgment, and indeed, beyond recognition itself.

Along with self-styled aesthete Comrade Alexandrov, a brutal enforcer for the KGB, we acknowledge the infinitesimal impact that Russian martyr Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya’s death would have had if the famous photo of her hanged, dead body in the snow hadn’t rallied the troops fighting the Nazis during World War II. In such a world, the problematic associations between artists and the state cannot be far behind.

One of the key points at the center of Europe Central is the degree to which commodification of their work by the state actually kept Shostakovich, poet Anna Akhmatova and visual artist Kathe Kollwitz alive, as different regimes tore the fabric of central Europe to bits during the middle of the 20th century. But in what seems almost the same breath, Vollmann, Justice and Smith raise the ethical question of artistic commodification as well. At one juncture, seeking “some strong, straightforward actions … you’d have to be a fool not to learn the wrong lessons from,” Kollwitz, Shostakovich, Karmen and Akhmatova are somehow convened around the martyr Kosmodemyanskaya, moments after her death. Each is asked what they can, quite literally, make of her. The inquisition’s results are telling.

When the state’s representatives openly consider individualism a crime, the relationship between government, artists and the conscientious are devil’s bargains at best. In this way, Europe Central does not mark its subjects’ triumph over totalitarianism as much as it documents their mutation because of it. We do not knownor does this work depictwhat Shostakovich, Akhmatova, East German hanging judge Hilde Benjamin or the uniquely problematic Kurt Gerstein, a scientist and SS officer who labored to sabotage a Nazi extermination camp, would have achieved had they ever been released from the choke chains of the state.

Indeed, the closest this production comes to addressing the question is an unsatisfying coda in which somebut not allof the subjects are reunited at a speculative post-life party, an unconvincing gathering of predators and prey that manages to ring, as William S. Burroughs once put it, as false as a Communist mural. It’s all the more jarring given the excellence of what comes before it.

Dorrie Casey’s Act Two monologue as Judge Benjamin was particularly moving, and Dierdre Shipman’s world-weariness befitted her interpretation of Kollwitz. Tamara Kissane was strikingand a true survivoras a Konstantinovskaya who had survived prison camps to affirm life all the more vividly. Lucius Robinson played a complicitous Karmen with gusto.

The essence of Lamont Reed’s improbable work as Adolf Hitler is visible in a chilling moment from Douglas Vuncannon and Jim Haverkamp’s film footage. It’s appropriate to leave audiences to experience it without prior warning. But Emma Nadeau and Meredith Sause’s instrumental music and Dana Marks’ musical adaptations of Akhmatova’s poetry warrant notice and applause.

The only criticism of Emily Hower and Jay O’Berski’s intricate set is that it doesn’t truly fit in the Manbites Dog Theater space. Not when Marks seemed to nearly bump her head, out of the light, on the theater’s low false ceiling every time she sat in Akhmatova’s imaginative flying chair. Not when Hower’s spiralling homage to Tatlin’s Third International Monument threatened to poke a hole in the same surface from its corner. And not when a Russian bedroom, a German battlefield and other zones seemed crammed together, one against another.

Little Green Pig’s recent production of My Lovely Suicides, staged for Manbites Dog’s Other Voices series at the Strawbridge studio on Geer Street, gave audiences loyal to both companies a needed reminder of the impact that adequate spacevertical and horizontalcan have on a show. That space is clearly lacking here. Europe Central feels cramped and claustrophobic as a result, dynamics seen in other productions at the Foster Street space.

If memory serves, the original game plan for Manbites Dog’s building involved taking the false roof out and opening up the space of the building’s second story above the stage. Given the different results seen here and recently at Strawbridge, perhaps it’s time those plans were revisited.

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