A Grim Tale of the Destruction of Germany during World Wars I and IICulture Watch
Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.
The Blue Flower
Second Stage Theater
305 W. 43rd Street
New York, N.Y.
The Blue Flower, a haunting play by Jim and Ruth Bauer, is hard to categorize. It is bizarre, different, eclectic, avant garde and unusual, all in the same breath. It is a story in which extremely well done black and white movies and slide shows add a backdrop to the plot of the tale of four young Germans whose lives are ruined by World Wars I and II.
The musical, which opened last night at the Second Stage Theater in New York, has a lot of problems. The plot veers off at strange angles. The audience is jolted left and right, up and down by odd events on stage. One character often speaks in a foreign language which is translated into a foreign language. There are dreamlike dance acts in a warehouse, crazy art collages, ghosts, sex parties, cocaine snorting and, for two hours, endless repression.
And yet, despite all of this, there is an indefinable magnetism to the play, something strong and seductive in it that draws you into the story and the destruction of the main characters on stage over a long period of time. It is a bumpy night, but an interesting one.
It is also a treasure trove for history for history lovers. The play starts in 1913 and ends in 1955 and covers much of German and European history. The musical not only offers a long and well-defined history of World War I and both Weimar and Nazi Germany, but, through films and slides, sheds a marvelous media spotlight on several generations of Germany. The movies of people walking down city streets on their way to and from work in Berlin in the early 1920s could have been people in London or Austin, Texas. It is not just a chronicle of Germany, either. It is the history of ordinary people, here two artists, an actress and a teacher, who become consumed by the Great War and its aftermath. The Blue Flower is the tale of what happened to ordinary middle-class, middle-income people who happened to get in the way of history’s juggernaut.
The play starts in bliss. Max Baumann and his best friend Franz, two young artists, move from Germany to Paris, where the action is, in 1913. They have to return to Germany when World War I commences. Max becomes a medic in the army and is involved in dozens of battles, bombs bursting around him, bullets spitting through the air, and survives. Franz becomes a journalist for a government news wire, a safe job, and gets killed. Hannah, who met Max and became his lover and assistant medic, survives the war and lives with her disoriented man in the Weimar Republic. The ghost of Franz returns to the story from time to time.
The play is not an in-depth analysis of post-World War I Europe, but it offers good descriptions of what happened to Germany. The country’s economy was in tatters, political leadership was weak and numerous factions of people battled with each other. The Great Depression hit, unemployment was high and thousands of business collapsed. Hitler arrived.
The characters in the play did not plan on any of that back in 1913, and wound up with all of it. The play is their story, the story of any ordinary quartet of people caught up in any war. The Blue Flower has a lot of problems, dead spots and confusion, but the love stories, and the victim stories, and the movies, keep you interested, always wondering if the foursome will survive.
The strength of The Blue Flower is the talented ensemble cast of Sebastian Arcelus (Franz), Marc Kudisch (Max), Meghan McGeary (Hannah) and Teal Wicks (Maria). They are good actors and good singers (especially Wicks). Wicks sings a soulful ballad at the end of act one, from on top of the Eiffel Tower, that’s dazzling.
Director Will Pomerantz does a masterful job of keeping his cast moving along at the same time the screen is telling its own story. The set is a wonderful warehouse style maze of catwalks, balconies and staircases. The actors continually turn those props into new sets. As an example, a platform is turned around with actors on it to depict a battlefield hospital ward in World War I and the scene is riveting. There are war scenes staged that, despite the lack of apparent artillery batteries, are frightening. The explosions reverberate through the theater and test your nerves. Pomerantz has done a fine job of recreating a war on the stage, almost always an impossible task, regardless of the show.
The music in the play is very much like the music of Kurt Weill and there are shadows of his play The Threepenny Opera all over the stage. The songs have a familiar ring to each other, but Wicks’ act one sendoff is a gem, as are a few powerful ballads in act one.
Are there unusual aspects to the play, things you may have never seen before? Oh, yes. The plot, at times, seems like Bertolt Brecht meets Tim Burton. Parties appear out of nowhere and then disappear into the night. Storm troopers breeze on and off stage.
It takes awhile for this blue flower about German history to bloom, but it does.
PRODUCTION: Produced by the Second Stage Theater. Set: Beowulf Buritt, Costumes: Ann Hould-Ward, Lighting: Donald Holder, Sound: Dan Moses Schreier, Projections: Aaron Rhyme, Jim and Ruth Bauer, Choreography: Casey Brock. The play is directed by Will Pomerantz.
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