Monday, June 6, 2016

Incident at Vichy (Soulpepper)

As I've mentioned a few times on this blog, I was away from Chicago when a solid production of Incident at Vichy was produced, and I have been looking forward to the Soulpepper production for around 6 months, since I first heard the season announced.  Sometimes one can have expectations that are too high, but in this case, Soulpepper definitely delivered the goods.  To cut to the chase, this is a very good production and I would definitely recommend it (the Slotkin Letter also has a very positive review).  I actually saw this a few days before Coal Mine's Instructions, but I noticed that the next few shows at Soulpepper were sold out and the Coal Mine review might be more useful for people making last minute decisions.  At any rate, Incident at Vichy runs to June 23, and there are still tickets for the second half of the run, so I would encourage anyone interested to book soon.  (I suppose there is a chance they will extend the production, but I wouldn't count on it.*)

At this point, the last major Miller I still need to see is A View from the Bridge, so I'll be keeping my eyes out for that one.  (At the moment, there are no upcoming productions near me or near my potential vacation spots.  If the one in Minneapolis was moved up a few months, I probably would find a way to get out there...)

The setting is stark and minimalist.  The set is basically a bench upon which nine men are squeezed, waiting to be interrogated in an office.  The audience cannot see behind that office door.  Likewise, there is one other exit guarded by one guard (a fact which becomes salient midway through the play).  Like many Miller plays, the characters are only barely characters, but rather mouthpieces for different political views that are thrown together.  In this case at least, one can imagine that the stress and general isolation from society might well lead people to forgo their social conventions and speak their minds.  What certainly does work well is that one or two of the characters can't help themselves from spreading rumors about what is happening to Jews that have been rounded up in un-Occupied France, while another argues that "there are rules" and that the Nazis cannot just break them with impunity.  The Austrian prince Von Berg argues convincingly that the Nazis are so successful precisely because they do what others cannot imagine: "it paralyzes the rest of us."  He goes on later to say that they (the Nazis) they are almost artists of a sort: "If you despise Jews the most honest thing is to burn them up.  And the fact that it costs money, and uses up trains and personnel--this only guarantees the integrity, the purity, the existence of their feelings.  They would even tell you that only a Jew would think of the cost."

While Von Berg generally has the best lines and effectively counters the optimism of Bayard, an electrician with Communist views, there is also good interplay between the actor Monceau and Leduc, a one-time psychologist and war veteran.  While Miller never comes out and directly name-checks Freud's death drive, it is quite clear that Leduc believes that Monceau (and Jews more generally) acted in ways that were very self-destructive.  (Right at the start of the play, the painter Lebeau complains bitterly that his family was set to leave France for America but his mother wouldn't leave behind her furniture!)  Towards the end of the play, Von Berg and Leduc have an extended series of exchanges that lead to the existential questions of whether one person would (or should) sacrifice him- or herself for another and under what conditions might this occur.  These are difficult questions, and one cannot really know how heroic one would or would not be.  I would likely not sacrifice myself for anyone other than my children, but if it was a situation that called for bravery but not self-sacrifice, I might acquit myself better.

Diego Matamoros more or less steals the show as Von Berg, but really all the actors are fine.  I am quite astounded that Matamoros is not only playing this part but has a lead role in The Odd Couple at the exact same time.  That's pretty impressive.  I've seen him in quite a few roles already, and it turns out he is a founding member of Soulpepper and has acted in every single season.  I guess he is sort of the equivalent of Francis Guinan at Steppenwolf, whom I was seeing in almost everything for a few seasons (now Guinan is back to one or two plays a season).

The play itself is a taut 90 minutes.  On leaving the play, I heard someone in the audience bemoan "What's upsetting is that it doesn't feel dated at all."  This is certainly true, though in one sense it is easier for us to demonize the Taliban or ISIS since they are so thoroughly anti-art and anti-humanist as well.  While the Nazis were generally vulgar (and had bad table manners according to Von Berg), they also did genuinely appreciate middle-brow art and music, so it was somewhat harder to make them into monsters (at least until the full horror of what they did was revealed towards the end of the war).  While you probably won't be uplifted at the end of this play, it does leave you with a lot to think about, including the parallels with current events.

* It appears they added 2 dates - June 24 and 25, but no extensions beyond that.

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