Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Review of New City Stage Production of "Angel: A Nightmare in Two Acts"

What forces could transform a sensitive young farm girl into a vicious and sadistic killer before she is even twenty years old? This is the question posed by New City Stage Company’s premier of Angel: A Nightmare in Two Acts, a play that examines the brief life of Irma Grese, a notorious Nazi war criminal hanged by the British for her part in sending thousands to their deaths. Through many flashbacks, changes in plot, and multiple themes, playwright Jo Davidsmeyer attempts to analyze the woman known unaffectionately as “the beautiful beast,” in order to understand how such a life as hers was possible.

Unfortunately, this play asked far more questions than it answered, and both the cast and audience suffered from the defects present in the script. Angel failed to offer a single real conversation, but instead presented a staged history lesson, with reams of exposition clumsily inserted into the dialogue. This cluttered the performance of all the players, making it difficult for them to inhabit their roles while giving each of them the additional chore of somehow convincing the audience that all of these historical figures were so didactic. To add to this confusion, Davidsmeyer’s play shifted back and forth from Auschwitz, to Irma’s childhood, to the Nazi war trials, with such poor transitions that not even Neill Hartley’s usually brilliant direction could execute them faithfully. But the dialogue is where Angel suffered the most: beyond the pedantry of the exposition, the play filled the mouths of Nazi criminals and British attorneys alike with hackneyed and contrived phrases such as “You want the truth?” and “Who told you to think,” most of which only reminded of their far less clich├ęd usage in other works.

The script then confronted the actors with an uneasy dilemma. They could either take each bad line, muddled transition, and unintegrated trait of their characters, and play them with a capacity that befits their talents, thereby exacerbating the problems in the script; or they could give an uneven performance so as not to inflict these problems so drastically upon the audience. Unfortunately, the actors and director chose to solve the problem in the first, subjecting everyone to endure a night of (mostly) bad theater.

As Irma Grese, Ginger Dayle certainly looked the part, with her beautiful appearance and militaristic manner. She acted certain elements far better than others, but her performance was uneven—she easily handled the viciousness, but never mastered whatever human side of Grese that remained. Her attempts at seduction, at a warm relationship with her sister, her defiance at the trial, all seemed forced, but only partly because of the confused series of lines the script gives her. Moreover, her inconsistent German accent never once helped, and caused her to sound like a valley girl every time she uttered the German word “Ja!”

Though he intended to appear charming and carefree, Rob Hargraves’ accent and mannerisms made his portrayal of Josef Mengele into a smarmy, somewhat ridiculous parody. He gave a few brief glimpses into the character though, genuinely terrifying at times, especially when threatening Irma after she aborted his child. But mostly, Hargraves failed to capture this very complex role, playing Mengele as if he were a pervert, rather than a coolly detached and hideously manipulative killer.

As Helene Grese and Olga Lenygel, Irma’s sister and victim, Alix Fenhagen and Jackie Ruggeiro Jacobson gave the finer performances of the production. Although they inhabited minor parts, these two achieved depth and thoughtfulness within their roles, even through the contrived dialogue spoken by both. Fenhagen in particular took command of the stage during the early moments of Act Two, as she vainly struggled to accept her sister’s evil behavior in the face of the idyllic childhood they once shared.

In stark contrast to the delicate subtlety of their performances, Scott Evans’ Prosecutor didn’t speak a single one of his lines without raising his voice an octave in mock exasperation. Granted, his character tried throughout to understand how someone as young and beautiful as Grese could commit acts of such brutality; but his choices collided with the script, as Dayle’s Irma at one point implored him to break from the “stodgy British demeanor” that he failed to ever bring to the role.

In spite of these faults, for twenty minutes in Act Two, this production truly delivered. A rather strained transition roused the sleeping Prosecutor into the Nightmare of the title, where the play put him on trial for the Allies’ failures during the war. The entire cast then fully embraced their roles, all of which suddenly became invigorating and exciting to watch as the dialogue had them battle over who ultimately bears fault for the atrocities that occurred. The nightmare spared no one, and forced the West, the Jews, the Nazis, and the victors of the first war to confront their shared blame and the guilt that haunts them. The only mystery that remained is why Davidsmeyer didn’t construct the entire play in this fashion, as here Hartley could finally exercise his ability and catapult this cast through a thoroughly riveting episode.

After this dream sequence, Davidsmeyer could have ended her play, leaving many themes unresolved, while at least finishing on the dramatic height that she finally achieved. But unfortunately, she still had more to say, and Angel transitioned again, and then again, slowly becoming a play that refused to end. Thirty minutes later, Angel still left many themes unresolved, and while only succeeding in making this play a nightmare to watch.

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