Monthly Archive for: ‘June, 2017’
“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be,” Howard Campbell from Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night.
Howard Campbell appears in a dark jail cell in Israel. This protagonist and narrator of Mother Night will stand trial for crimes against humanity, having been a radio and print propagandist for the Nazis before and during World War II. Brian Katz has adapted Kurt Vonnegut’s novel for the stage. Although the world premiere performance suffered a number of opening night glitches, it is an ambitious effort that draws from a daring and important work, and this theatrical version is well worth examination.
The title comes from a speech by Mephistopheles in Johann Goethe’s Faust and can refer to either the darkness that preceded the light or the inevitable Armageddon in which eternal darkness returns. “Mother Night” is the predecessor and test bed for Vonnegut’s more noted Slaughterhouse Five. The two works are linked by the shared character of Howard Campbell; by focusing on World War II but spanning time periods forward and back; by the dominant locale of the action; by non-sequenced flashbacks; by the use of an “unreliable narrator;” and by the conceit of metafiction in which the fourth wall is broken and a character speaks directly to the audience.
In Mother Night we learn of Campbell’s social and political relationships and his love life. Along the way, he must navigate a perilous passage teeming with Nazi party leaders, Nazi hunters, espionage, deceit, and loss.
Campbell’s amorality is the central theme. Born in the U.S., but in Germany from age 11, he lacks a social or ethical core. He is cynical and chameleon-like, acting in ways that serve him at the time. Perhaps in the author’s pessimistic schema, Campbell’s amorphous principles are attributable to his mixed cultural upbringing. Yet there are times that he reveals bits of humanity, if his words are to be believed. He notes, for instance, “There are plenty of good reasons for fighting… but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you.” This would appear to be a repudiation of the Nazi’s extermination of Jews, yet he was part of the propaganda machine.
Director Katz orchestrates a suitably ominous world for this grim morality tale. Scenic designer Daniel Bilodeau’s set is a delightfully foreboding cul-de-sac of dark surfaces and hard edges which coordinates brilliantly with complex lighting that enhances contrast and the sense of threat. Designer Maxx Kurzunski almost exhausts the playbook with harsh lighting from behind panels, up from the floor, blue haze, and more. Chris Morrell heads the cast and captures Campbell’s unsympathisch nature as well as the character’s ability to socialize well enough to get along.
The performance was marred by numerous flubbed lines by many of the cast, but this defect should by rectified in future performances. A greater concern is a common one with actors playing multiple roles when it is not always clear if a new appearance by the actor is the same role but in new clothes or is a new skin altogether. The script is so full of characters and changes of time and place that some viewers will find the plot difficult to follow. To some extent, das machs nichts. Missing some detail doesn’t matter so much as the overarching literary and moral threads are so strong.
The most compelling moral lesson of the work is that we are who we pretend to be. In fact, Campbell was ambiguous about who he was, but he felt that safety would result from his public support of the Nazis, even though he was not an adherent.
This notion of pretending before one’s public resonates in our time. Famous people with outsized personas often claim to be something really different in their private lives and wish to be evaluated by their self-definition when they are away from the media and the money machine behind it. Bill O’Reilly and Howard Stern fall in this group who argue that in part, their public image is not who they really are. But while their private personas may touch upon tens or even hundreds of people, their public character reaches and influences millions. They should be accountable and evaluated as persons by the actions that have the more profound impact.
Mother Night, adapted by Brian Katz from the novel by Kurt Vonnegut is produced by Custom Made Theatre and plays on its stage at 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco, through June 24, 2017.