Horizon Theatre Rep (off-off-Broadway) is presenting Culture Shock 1911-1922, an evening of plays from the World War I period. The bill includes: Sancta Susanna (1911) by August Stramm; The Guardian of the Tomb (1916) by Franz Kafka (Kafka's only play); Ithaka (1914) by Gottfried Benn; Crucifixion (1920) by Lothar Schreyer; a section of The Transfiguration (1919) by Ernst Toller. These are plays of the Expressionist school. It’s a vein of drama that’s neglected on our stages, and Horizon Theatre Rep is to be applauded for producing them.
Director Rafael DeMussa has populated his stage with five soldiers; they read the scripts from books. Actually, sometimes they’re reading and sometimes they’re not. What’s clever is the blurring of distinction between reading and acting. In the show’s most interesting moment, an actor rips pages from the book when he’s finished with them. This imbeds the script into the very fabric of the stage.
DeMussa has included videos on the upstage wall. They’re black-and-white clips of World War I. It’s marvelous; there’s a smart contrast between the non-rational scripts and the stark realism of the images.
Between the frame of the soldiers, the scripts-in-hand and the video, there’s a thorough and calculated distancing effect. It’s well conceived, but DeMussa’s chosen the wrong scripts for this. Expressionism works through immediate emotion; the plays need to affect us directly. Behind the screen of the verfremdungseffet, they lose their power.
Inspired as the concept may be, it can’t overcome the weaknesses of the acting. First of all, the actors’ speech is so poor is difficult to listen to – flattened vowels, rushed sentences, punched syllables... Moreover, the actors seem not to have analyzed all of the scripts; in long passages, what they’re doing is all the same. And much of the work is emotionally unsupported. The result is disagreeable.
Let’s hope that Horizon Theatre Rep continues its mission to present “seldom-produced masterpieces of world theater.” But DeMussa, the artistic director, needs to be apply his concepts more carefully and be more selective about his rep of actors.