A chilling look at mad atrocity planned with rational boardroom expediency – Heretofore Productions’ staged reading of Conspiracy

Conspiracy p 1--Final 15I went to see Heretofore Productions’ marvelous staged reading of Loring Mandel’s Conspiracy at Grace Church on-the-Hill (300 Lonsdale Road) last night, the first of a two-night run. Co-produced by Leeman Kessler and Danielle Capretti, and co-directed by Capretti and Vivian Hisey, this is an adaptation of Mandel’s film Conspiracy, a documentary-like look at the 1942 Wannsee Conference, where a group of high-ranking Nazi officials decide on the details of their Final Solution.

With the audience set up around the conference table, we literally get a fly-on-the-wall look at the proceedings – made all the more chilling by how ordinary the meeting looks on the surface as we witness the disturbing discussion about the fate of 11 million people.

The use of a mixed cast, with female actors playing some of the parts, drives home the humanity of the people attending this meeting – however unthinkable the subject. Seeing these characters in modern-day corporate costuming (co-director/actor Danielle Capretti pointed out during the talkback that red costume highlights, such as a handkerchief, denoted SS officials), one gets the feeling that one could be observing any corporate or government boardroom meeting; despite the horrible topic at hand, the conference is very much about business. Here, we see madness and power enacted under a thin veil of rationality, practicality and legal reasoning – but it’s important to not demonize these people. Viewing these men as monsters distances them from ourselves in such a way as to deny that this kind of meeting could happen anytime, anywhere. They could be anyone. The Catholic and Lutheran churches would turn a blind eye, and the Nazis had already seen ample evidence of international rejection of Jewish refugees. The sense that there is plenty of culpability to go around provides an easy rationale for the Nazis’ undertaking.

Language is sharpened to a polite point, its lethal intent civilized by euphemism. “The Jewish question” or “problem.” “Evacuate.” “Process.” Legal terminology is used to define and debate who is a Jew and who is German. Statistics on mortality by various means are casually noted – and mined for the most efficient and expedient methodology, with a nod to the Americans for their “ingenious” assembly line innovation. And, with the iron grip of the SS in charge of the discussion, it gradually dawns on you that the conference is a mere formality – all has been decided and all that is required from attendees is obedience.

Kessler, Capretti and Hisey have an impressive ensemble of actors for this run, including, in order of appearance:
Lt. Colonel Adolf Eichmann – Marisa King
Dr. Josef Bühler – Danielle Capretti
Major Dr. Rudolf Lange – Gregory Corkum
Brig. Gen. Dr. K. E. Schöngarth – Gabriel DiFabio
Dr. Georg Leibbrandt – Olivia Jon
Dist. Leader Dr. Alfred Meyer – Alan Page
U-Sec. Of State Martin Luther – Jeremy Henson
Sec. Of State Erich Neumann – Manda Whitney
Sec. Of State Dr. W. Stuckart – Janice Hansen
Major General Otto Hofmann – Christopher Kelk
Friedrich Wilhelm Kritzinger – Vivian Hisey
Brig. Gen. Gerhard Klopfer – Neil Kulin
Brig. Gen. Dr. Roland Freisler – Jen Ashby
Maj. General Heinrich Müller – Rob Schock
General Reinhard Heydrich – Will van der Zyl
Stenographer – Emily Hisey Bowden
Guard – Heather Chaytor

Each actor does an excellent job of finding the humanity in his/her character – again, it’s important to not view these men as demons, but as people. Ordinary people doing abhorrent things. Otherwise, we learn nothing. Political and power play infighting abound. While Stuckart (the architect of the Nuremburg Laws) is more concerned with the legal implications of their decision and nervous bureaucrat Neumann is worried about workforce issues, Kritzinger (the only one to express remorse in the end) is the only one who seems to have a modicum of conscience; and both Stuckart and Kritzinger are bullied by Heydrich to acquiesce to the plan. And we have Luther to thank for what we know of this meeting. Against orders, he kept his transcript and it was found in the aftermath of the war.

Allen Kaeja of Kaeja d’Dance, the son of an Auschwitz survivor who has choreographed several pieces about the Holocaust, hosted the post-reading talk-back, and shared the moving and incredible story of his dad’s experience and how he escaped.

During the talkback, the point about the importance of the characters being portrayed as human came up several times. No one is immune to being in a position to make horrific decisions, particularly in a culture of fear, in this case presided over by Heydrich and the SS, who were not above bullying or threatening other officials, and willing to do the killing that average soldiers lacked the stomach for (a morale problem pointed out by Lange during the meeting). The matter of fact, almost casual tone of this terrible conference discussion is made all the more tragic by how human these men are, highlighted by Hofmann becoming momentarily ill and Kritzinger being visibly sick at heart at the end of the meeting.

The issue of intent also came up – an audience member mentioned that the actions of this group of men went beyond discrimination, but to selling their souls for power. Actor Janice Hansen called to mind the classic psychology experiment in which subjects were instructed to administer electric shocks to an unseen person, who they could hear reacting in pain. Subjects who continued to give the shocks weren’t evil, they just weren’t able to disobey or say no. We need to believe that ordinary people can do terrible things.

Heretofore Productions’ Conspiracy is a chilling look at mad atrocity planned with rational boardroom expediency and legal debate.

You have one more chance to catch this very brief run of this excellent staged reading: tonight (Fri, Nov 21) at 7 p.m. Admission is free and there will be another post-performance talkback tonight.

Department of Corrections: An earlier version of this post included incomplete/incorrect information on the producing and directing teams; this has since been corrected.

Some sympathy for the devils in StageWorks Toronto’s Assassins

Assassins colourized alley“Attention must be paid!” This line from The Death of a Salesman is used as a major talking point by John Wilkes Booth in Assassins. Not able to achieve recognition by regular means, there are some people who will go to extreme measures to be noticed, undertaking the death of another.

StageWorks Toronto’s production of Assassins – music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman, and directed by Lorraine Kimsa and Michael Yaneff, with music direction by Tom Kerr – takes us through a history of nine American assassins, from the 1860s to the 1970s.

Starting at a carnival in limbo, the Proprietor introduces eight of the assassins, arming each with a period appropriate handgun. Spinning the Wheel of Presidents, the Proprietor starts it all off with Booth in 1865 – the father of American presidential assassinations. Our trip through history is not a chronological one, and each outcome is interwoven with various scenes of Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore on their comic, bumbling road to their target Gerald Ford. And throughout, the Balladeer adds musical moral commentary on the situation at hand.

It’s not all dark comedy fun and games, though – the final assassination presented – the most affecting historically and personally for America – is nurtured to its horrible fruition by Booth and the others as they coax Lee Harvey Oswald to pull the trigger on John F. Kennedy from that Dallas Book Depository window.

Overall, an excellent cast, serving up some strong vocals – with some stand-outs. Luke Witt is very effective as the devilishly seductive Proprietor, while Hugh Ritchie is beautifully bright and soothing as the Balladeer – the devil and the angel on opposite shoulders of the collective assassins’ consciousness. Rich Burdett is remarkable as Booth, combining a striking, commanding presence and powerful vocals – and his scene with Oswald (played with great passion and inner conflict by Nicholas Arnold) is particularly chilling. Will van der Zyl delivers a hilarious and poignant performance as the crazy Santa Samuel Byck, in his tape recorded letters to Leonard Bernstein and Richard Nixon, outlining his plan to fly a 747 at Nixon in 1974. Laurie Hurst is lovably kooky as Moore and Christie Stewart is adorably deluded as Fromme – and Stewart does a lovely duet, “Unworthy of Your Love,” with Mike Buchanan (nice work as the sensitive, but extremely troubled John Hinckley Jr.), a love song to their celebrity obsessions Charles Manson and Jodi Foster.

Collectively, the Ensemble (Anthony Botelho, Stephen Flett, Lauren Lazar, Suzanne Miller and Peter Nielson) give a lovely, moving performance of “Something Just Broke,” presenting first-hand citizen accounts of where they were when they heard about their president’s death, led by especially strong vocals by Lazar. And the assassins do a great job with “Another National Anthem” and the finale “Everybody’s Got the Right” – hymns of the disenfranchised and marginalized, left behind economically and in some cases dealing with mental health issues. Eerie in light of ongoing current events in the U.S., where everybody’s got the right to own a gun, but not everyone has access to mental health care or equal opportunity – and the deadly, tragic combination these can make.

With shouts to set designer Michelle Tracey, and lighting designers Karen Brown and Paul Harris, for the aesthetically pleasing, very effective multi-level creepy carnival in limbo, with great use of back-screen projection for the footage of the Kennedys making their way from the airport and through Dallas to that shot that was heard around the world. And the use of balloons on set to create the gunshot sounds was both clever and spooky.

Everyone needs to be loved and everyone needs to matter. But not everyone goes about it by deciding to kill the President of the United States. And rightly so. For a couple of hours, we hear their stories, their reasons – and perhaps we can offer up some sympathy. But in light of a deadly, final outcome, we can only feel so sorry for these poor devils.

StageWorks Toronto’s production of Assassins is a rousing, darkly entertaining and moving piece of musical cautionary storytelling. Attention must be paid.

Assassins continues its run at the George Ignatieff Theatre until July 27.

A moving, infuriating inspiration – StageWorks Toronto’s Parade

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Scott Labonte (as Leo Frank) and Lauren Lazar (as Lucille Frank). Photo by Nicholas Jones.

I saw Parade for the very first time when I went to see StageWorks Toronto’s production last night at the George Ignatieff Theatre.

With music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, and book by Alfred Uhry, StageWorks’ production of Parade was directed/choreographed by Lorraine Green-Kimsa, assisted by Michael Yaneff, with music direction by Tom Kerr. Based on a true story of prejudice and gross miscarriage of justice, Parade is a moving, heartbreaking, infuriating inspiration of a musical.

The large energetic cast includes stand-out performances by the two leads: company co-founder Lauren Lazar (Lucille Frank, co-producer) and Scott Labonte (Leo Frank), both doing a lovely job with both the musical demands of their roles, as well as their characters’ arcs. Their relationship distant and strained, Leo is a stiff, frustrated but decent man, while Lucille is prim and loyal – and both face a test of loyalty and strength, both personal and marital, throughout the course of Leo’s trial and incarceration, culminating in the beautiful duet “All The Wasted Time.”

Twaine Ward (Newt Lee & Jim Conley) does a stellar turn, especially as the charming and resourceful Conley, showing great acting and singing chops on “That’s What He Said,” “ A Rumblin’ and a Rollin’” and “Blues: Feel the Rain Fall,” the latter including some great choreography for the chain gang scene. Luke Witt has great range as young Frankie Epps, going from cheeky flirt in “The Picture Show” to devastated, vengeful friend in “There is a Fountain/It Don’t Make Sense.” Stephen Flett does a great job with Governor Jack Slaton, a good ‘ole boy who finds himself rethinking the questionable methods he’s been employing to keep things neat and tidy politically. A nice pairing with Kelly Lovatt-Hawkins as his wife Sally, a balancing influence and an equal in their marriage – and a great fun, charming song and dance number in “Pretty Music.” The villains in this story are played with relish and realism – Will van der Zyl’s Hugh Dorsey, the politically ambitious snake of a D.A., and Michael Yaneff as Watson (also co-founder/co-producer), the dangerous, right-wing Christian bible thumper. All of the characters exude their own kind of virtue and all are flawed.

Parade is certainly a strong socio-political commentary of the time, place, people and justice system – but what makes it so compelling is that it’s a very human story. A husband and wife discover the true love and strength of their marriage, and a governor does the right thing despite the likely peril of his political career.

“Parade” is a reference to the annual April 26 Confederate Memorial Day parade – it is also about the parade of humanity. The show opens and closes with “The Old Red Hills of Home” – first sung by a young soldier going off to fight in the Civil War, then at the end led by Frankie Epps, who is going off to fight in WWI. Not much changes in the 50-odd years in between – and one only has to read the newspaper to see that there is work yet to be done on the justice system in the south.

Parade runs at the George Ignatieff Theatre until August 18. Here’s one of the preview vids for the production – the finale of the rousing and somewhat disturbing, given the play’s journey, “Old Red Hills of Home.” You can see all the Parade preview vids on the StageWorks Toronto’s website: