You gotta hand it to Nazi Germany: Hitler gave us the most culturally sophisticated engine of mass murder the world has ever seen. Even as millions of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and other undesirables were being systematically erased, the great Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the Berlin State Opera delivered magnificent performances to capacity audiences, while composers such as Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and Brahms were invaluable propaganda tools to Joseph Goebbels, who used them to prove the superiority of Teutonic culture. Now it's high art, but for a few dark years, great classical music was nothing less than the soundtrack to the Holocaust.
Germany's leading conductor, Wilhelm Furtwangler, stood at the center of this cultural storm. Many of his colleagues—Jewish and not—left Germany when the Nazis came to power. Furtwangler stayed, however, and his career flourished as he captained the Berlin Philharmonic during Hitler's reign. On the not-so-reprehensible side of things, he never joined the Nazi Party, spoke out against some aspects of cultural cleansing, and saved hundreds of Jews from extermination by helping them gain safe passage out of Germany. But the taint of his association with the Nazis tarnishes the man's reputation to this day.
Ronald Harwood's Taking Sides, a 1996 drama about an investigation into Furtwangler's involvement with the Nazi Party, tackles the was-he-or-wasn't-he? dilemma with an appropriate ambiguity, leaving it to the audience to decide whether Furtwangler was a die-hard Nazi sympathizer who stayed in Germany for prestige and fame or an apolitical artist determined to save his country through his passion for his work. It's a compelling play that pits a juicy intellectual conflict between one's commitment to art and one's commitment to humanity against deficiencies in action and character. Unfortunately, "tense psychological drama" is just another way of saying "Get ready for a whole lot of yammering."
Director Sharyn Case and her well-appointed cast do a good job of covering up the shallow spots in Harwood's script, but at its heart, Sides is basically a TV cop show, a police station third degree complete with the bright circular light above the chair positioned stage center. Steve Arnold, the American major charged with investigating Furtwangler's links to the Nazi Party, has an intellect as generic as his name. One skeptic pegs it as Archie Bunker cross-examining Albert Einstein. Even the always-strong Jay Michael Fraley can't make Major Arnold less strident or laughably insensitive—although Fraley does make Arnold's battering-ram personality believable. This is a man who can't get the stench of the death camps out of his nostrils, and he's determined to bust every Nazi—and every Nazi sympathizer—he can find. That's a respectable motivation for any character, but it undermines the battle between the earnest if simple-minded American and the quasi-mystical Furtwangler, a man committed to a romantic idealization of art.
And it doesn't help that the other characters onstage are just as one-dimensional. Only Joseph Hutcheson's Helmuth Rode, a violinist in Furtwangler's orchestra, manages to embody the incredibly complex moral struggle that anyone living in Nazi Germany had to face—or deny. The rest of the supporting cast is thinly written. Lieutenant David Willis (Brent Nowak), who is monitoring Arnold's investigation, is an American Jew who lost both parents to Hitler's reign of terror, yet his adoration of Furtwangler's music is so pervasive that he's willing to forgive and forget the conductor's indiscretions. And Emmi Straube (Kelly Stark), Arnold's secretary and the daughter of a man lionized by the Resistance for taking part in a plot against Hitler's life, is just as captivated by Furtwangler. Stark adds remarkable depth with her physical portrayal: she shrinks and folds up on herself at every harsh word. She looks as if she's about to literally be blown off the stage at any moment—which lends even more power to her character's dark secret.
But then there's the composer himself. Lloyd Botway's Furtwangler comes off as a pompous ass, but as the play builds to its powerful climax, we gain a palpable sense of his confusion, guilt and deep sorrow. Ultimately, it's that arc—a man of great vision and artistic conviction forced (or not) into a morally eviscerating dance with the devil—that elevates this production from its rather pedestrian structure into a work of insightful moral investigation. Just as history is written by the victors, truth is a construct devised by those who need to see life in black and white. This play is born out of the vast gray area between private morality and public good, between art and politics, between serving the individual and serving humanity. You'll have to come to an answer on your own. But the central question—of how millions of tiny private concessions can culminate in a moral holocaust—is one that reverberates long after the curtain falls.
Taking Sides at the Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Opens Fri. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.; Thurs., March 14, 8 p.m. Through March 17. $12-$15.
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