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Brightness Rising :: Kaitlyn Chantry on Kushner's Examination of How Fascists Dismantle Democracies

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Nov 13, 2017

Tony Kushner's 1985 play "A Bright Room Called Day" was not loved by critics upon its first appearances. It's a play that hearkens back to Berlin at the start of 1932, and a group of artistic friends who witness the way Germany's Weimar Republic is systematically torn down and replaced with one of the most corrupt and ruthless states ever to exist in modern times: A government that planned and implemented the systematic extermination of twelve million people.

The truly frightening thing about Nazi Germany is how quickly the Nazis demolished democratic and legal institutions and replaced them with their own repressive and murdering governmental apparatus -- and how little resistance they encountered.

If the way our democratic institutions are being razed today feels uneasily familiar, then it might not be a surprise that Kushner's play -- unloved back the 1980s -- has suddenly found new purchase. Already this season Flat Earth Theatre Company has produced the play at the Mosesian Center in Watertown. Now the Longwood Players -- newly installed at the renovated Chelsea Theater Works -- has taken the play on, with a just-completed run that took place from Nov. 3 - 11.

Longed Players Artistic Director Kaitlyn Chantry helmed the show, creating an immersive environment in which audience members and actors shared the same space: A black box environment comfortably equipped with chairs, tables, sofas, and a chaise lounge. The staging enveloped audience members and invested them in the characters' concerns, fears, and humorous badinage in a direct and intimate way.

The play unfolds in two specific places, at two specific times. The scenes set in the 1930s take place in Berlin, in the apartment of a worried young woman named Agnes (Brooke Casanova). She's an actress, and also a budding Communist, though her lack of drive and commitment prevents her from doing much in either the theatrical or political realm. From her perspective, we can witness the actions and debate of others, such as her lover Husz, a Hungarian filmmaker who has already seen massive social turmoil in his home country, or the shrewd and pragmatic painter Gotchling (Nicole Ventura), who creates poster art for political gatherings while engaging in risky resistance activity. Projections on two screens illustrate the sequence of events in Germany at large over the course of 1932 and into 1933.

But there are also passages set in mid-1980s America, in the apartment where a politically active woman named Zillah (Nicole Frattaroli) lives. Zillah is outraged by the Reagan administration's willingness to stand by and do nothing while the AIDS epidemic ravages the gay community. Both Zillah and Agens are anxious about the future and haunted by the past -- in Agnes' case, literally, because Die Alte (Holly Newman), an old woman who is possibly a ghost or maybe a traumatized survivor, but certainly a relic of social disruptions past, keeps intruding into her flat in the middle of the night. This daub of mysticism is deliberate, and Kushner -- who, remember, brought winged messengers to the stage in "Angels in America" -- doubles down, ushering the Devil (Anthony Mullin) into the proceedings at Husz's beckoning.

Though the play's brief run made it impossible to publish this interview before the play closed, the subject matter is still very much of the moment -- and very much in need of critical (and artistic) inquiry. Therefore, dear readers, EDGE forges forward to chat with Kaitlyn Chantry about our darkened political climate and Tony Kushner's "A Bright Room Called Day."

EDGE: I'm not sure exactly how Longwood Players organizes their seasons, but as Artistic Director you have a considerable say (if not complete say) in what plays to produce. What drew you to Tony Kushner's "A Bright Room Called Day?" The current political climate must have been a factor -- what else played into the decision?

Kaitlyn Chantry: Whenever I choose a season, I'm guided by our mission to produce artistically interesting, intellectually stimulating, and socially compelling plays. In preparing for our 20th season, I wanted to find plays that would serve the mission and would make for an exciting debut in our new theatrical home in Chelsea. The first moment I saw the new blackbox, I knew I wanted to direct Tony Kushner. Few playwrights can so seamlessly combine big, universal ideas and the intimacy of private life - an approach I think is especially well served in a blackbox theater.

I had originally wanted to direct "The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures," Kushner's latest piece, which revisits many of the themes from "Bright Room." Unfortunately, though the play premiered in 2009, it remains a work in progress by the playwright. [In] July [of 2016], I started thinking about "A Bright Room Called Day." Trump had just secured the Republican nomination, and I was thinking a lot about how some individuals come to power and how it affects everyone else. Ironically, I decided to do the play before Trump actually won the presidency, not realizing how chillingly relevant it would be.

EDGE: Boston's theater scene has been vibrantly energized by the 2016 elections and its results. What are your feelings about theater and the role it plays in social and political matters?

Kaitlyn Chantry: My stance on this changes sometimes daily and I think that's because there's a difference between what theater can do and what theater should do. Theater can be a way to help artists and audience grapple with really difficult issues. It can help us all make sense of what's happening around us and what we might do about it. I think that's what Husz (in "Bright Room") would like to do with his art.

Theater can also effect change. It can make people rise up in the streets and demand justice. It's Bertolt Brecht and it's Augusto Boal and it's Annabella Gotchling. In "Bright Room," Gotchling makes political posters, sneaks around in the dark nailing them to telephone poles... her art never stops-but it's also never enough. And, of course, theater can also transport you. It can help you escape. If a production of "Anything Goes" makes you smile and laugh and get away for two hours, I count that as a success. That was the artistic motivation behind the vast majority of movie musicals being made during the Great Depression. Without that, we never would have had the 14 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films or Busby Berkeley musicals.

Personally, I want my work to do all three. I look for some opportunities for audience introspection and delight in all the plays I direct. And I hate the fourth wall. I hate having a theatrical audience that sits back like they're watching a television show or a movie. Though I don't ever expect to start a revolution in the streets, I want people to feel like they're part of the story that's being told in front of and around them.

EDGE: "A Bright Room Called Day" was first produced in the mid-1980s, and was Kushner's response to the Reagan administration's contemptible lack of response in the face of the AIDS epidemic. Today, there are those who still say that the Trump administration, and Donald Trump himself, is nothing to fear; we should give the administration a chance; finally, we have a president who speaks and thinks like a significant portion of the country and is doing the things they want to see. Are comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis premature?

Kaitlyn Chantry: I think the play is a perfect response to both Reagan and Trump. Kushner responds to this question himself by inserting the character of Zillah into "Bright Room." In one of the most striking passages in the play, Zillah asks why people are so fussy about calling something evil. Is a direct comparison of Reagan to Hitler justified? Of course not. But "as long as someone is playing in Mr. Hitler's neighborhood, we've got no reason to relax."

"Bright Room" isn't about comparing the AIDS epidemic to the holocaust - or comparing Hitler to Trump for that matter. It's about a difficult, overwhelming, and shocking political situation and how we (as artists or as everyday citizens) cope with that. If you can get past the idea of literally comparing Trump to a Nazi, there's a lot of valuable thought that can go into an analysis of Trump's rise to power and his current administration.

Zillah has actually become one of my favorite characters in the play because she has a real character arc. She genuinely changes, as she goes from ranting about Reagan, to conspiracy theories, to seeing the similarities to the rise of fascism, to being haunted by this woman in 1930s Germany. I think Zillah changes as a result of her experiences, and I like to think about what Zillah will do next. We more or less know the fates of the Germans in "Bright Room," but Kushner never answers the question of what happens to Zillah.

EDGE: You're also directing this production. What are your thoughts about how to balance the play's many moving parts -- the parallel stories set in the '30s and the '80s, for instance, or the simultaneous terrors that Agnes, in whose flat most of the action takes place, faces: The political terror of the Nazis and the psychological horror of "Die Alte," who seems to be a ghost or at least a living reminder of past horrors that seem to be welling up once again?

Kaitlyn Chantry: There's definitely a lot going on in this play. Our approach has been, more or less, to run with it. Kushner wants time travel, well we'll give him time travel. Ghosts are ghosts; the devil is the devil. I think there's room to approach everything metaphorically, but as a director (and as an actor) I think you have to make a firm, bold decision and carry that out. The audience will still be able to bring their own interpretations. I think when we began, we all had this idea to keep the modern age separate from the '30s and to keep the supernatural elements to themselves. But as we worked with the material, we realized it's all interdependent. I think Zillah sees Agnes in that photo. I think she travels to Berlin and literally hears her ghost. I think she succeeds in reaching across time.

There's a lot I could say about Die Alte, but I think it's one of the most important pieces to leave to the audience. The company knows who (or what) she is, but some of the best discussion/debate I've overheard has been about that character. I don't want to ruin that. I can tell you that the character's name in German is "the old one."

EDGE: You must be aware, of course, that Flat Earth Theatre also chose to produce "A Bright Room Called Day" this season. What were your thoughts and reactions to that coincidence?

Kaitlyn Chantry: "A Bright Room Called Day" is receiving a renaissance in Boston-and all over the country. And, of course, it's no coincidence. Even if there weren't literal Nazis marching in the streets right now, the play is stunningly relevant right now. And for me, the more, the merrier! It's an early, less-known play by Kushner. And it's one that really can help you make sense of where you are and what's happening around you. And if you see one of these productions and it can make you laugh and cry and think and maybe sleep better at night, then Kushner has done his job.

EDGE: Do you have any thoughts you'd like to share on how Longwood Players' take on the play will be different, or how its emphasis might diverge, from Flat Earth's production?

Kaitlyn Chantry: I didn't see the Flat Earth production -- or any of the other productions that have come about since Trump's election. But I expect that our production will have some pretty unique aspects to it. As I mentioned earlier, I believe in transporting an audience directly into the time and space of the play. I this production, the theater literally becomes Agnes' apartment. You will walk through her front door in order to find your seats.

Half of the audience will be seated in couches and upholstered chairs, and they're right in the thick of the action. We're performing completely in the round, so you have audience and actors all around you. We even have a select few seats set aside each night for people to sit right there with the actors: at Agnes' dining room table, on the couch, in the kitchen, or at Zillah's desk. These audience members (and everyone else, for that matter) will have personal, direct interactions with the actors. When someone is telling a story, they're telling it not just to the other characters onstage, but to the other guests in Agnes' apartment: the audience.

Audience members can expect to be handed drinks and props, asked to move seats, sung to. I want the audience to be right there, in the apartment, facing the same decisions as these characters and feeling their joy, their anguish, and their pain.

I've also heard of many other productions of "Bright Room" that the play is dark and heavy and difficult. I feel that couldn't be further from the truth. Yes, these characters are living in Nazi Germany. But they are people. They laugh, they enjoy each other's company. Kushner's dialogue sparkles. And though I've found audiences reluctant to laugh at Hitler, it is very much a wickedly funny play.

EDGE: Longwood Players embraces people of different backgrounds and levels of experience in the theatrical arts. What's your sense for the cast and crew of this production? Is there a groundswell of - for want of a better word - community support? That is, people who may not have much theatrical experience but who feel compelled to participate?

Kaitlyn Chantry: We're new to Chelsea, and so mobilizing a new community has definitely been a challenge. However, our cast is made of actors who are almost entirely new to the company, and we've been very glad to see them bringing in audiences who are new as well. We've also had some people step up who have never done theatre at all before... our sound designer is brand new to us and to theater. He did an amazing job selecting period-appropriate music and composed original music for the play as well.

EDGE: The other play Longwood Fellows is putting on this season is "Next to Normal," a musical that looks at how a middle-aged woman deals with mental illness. I think that's a fascinating pairing - so rife with irony and so appropriate! What was behind that selection?

Kaitlyn Chantry: I'm so glad you appreciate the pairing! I was drawn to these two shows because of the way they look at the private struggles of ordinary people. What's delightful about producing them back-to-back is that we get to see one instance where the enormity of the world is impacting their personal lives and another where the conflict is incredibly local and private. How different to look at the groundswell of support for Nazism in the 1930s and a family struggling with mental illness.

But in both pieces, we have these central women: Agnes and Diana. And their struggles are so strangely similar. And they make so many of the same choices. But above all, these two plays simply ask us: How do we keep going? It's a difficult question to answer. And both plays present a full cast of characters who all bring different answers to the question. And, of course, it's a question each person can only answer for themselves.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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