Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Staging History

Last week, I saw two different plays that staged historical events for a modern audience: Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard and Susan B. by Toby Armour.

is currently playing on Broadway in a production directed by Patrick Marber, who staged a wonderful revival of Stoppard's Travesties in 2018. It tells a multi-generational epic saga about a family of assimilated Jews in Vienna beginning in 1899 and continuing into the 1950s.

Marber has assembled a crack ensemble cast, including Sara Topham (who played Cecily in Travesties), as well as Brandon Uranowitz, who plays the mathematician Ludwig in Leopoldstadt, and Caissie Levy, who plays his wife Eva. Though Ludwig and Eva have remained true to their Jewish faith, Eva's brother Hermann has converted to Christianity and married a gentile.

As darkness descends following the Great War, Hermann's assimilation will not be enough to save him. Much of the play's power comes from the dramatic irony of the audience knowing what's coming while the characters do not. Austria, after being defeated, is annexed by Germany, and as most of the family either cannot or will not leave, they are doomed to die in concentration camps.

Susan B. is a completely different type of play: smaller, sleeker, and much more optimistic. Directed by Joan Kane, it starred Kathleen Moore as the famous suffrage activist Susan B. Anthony. It's too bad that the show is closed now. (I caught the last performance at Theatre for a New City.) The piece featured live piano music by composer Peter Dizozza, and in addition to the veteran actor Moore, it included the relative newcomer Elizabeth McBryde, shining in the ensemble in a variety of small roles.

What both plays have in common is their effort to process history from the standpoint of knowing those things the characters do not. We see the connections bringing everything together, even as the characters see only random events. In Leopoldstadt, Ludwig relates this to a game of Cat's Cradle in which the string has three knots. The relationship of the three knots in space is constantly changing. If you can only see the knots, you have no idea how or why, but if you understand what's happening with the string, each shift is entirely predictable.

For us stuck inside of history, those of us who are the knots, the forces that pull on us are largely a mystery. Susan B. Anthony could no more predict the future of U.S. politics than the hapless businessmen and intellectuals in Leopoldstadt could foresee the destruction of their entire way of life. That's a sobering thought as we head into a very consequential mid-term election.