Times Like Those

It's a powerful wake-up call to despotism, but the America link doesn't fly

Ever since George Bush started beating the war drum in Washington we've heard comparisons of him with Hitler. Between the PATRIOT Act, the fug of anxiety since Sept. 11, and the Napoleonic war we just decided to wage on Iraq, the usual suspects on the left have found it easy to link Bush with the Austrian embodiment of evil. One strong new example is a work by San Francisco playwright John O'Keefe, based on the lives of two actors in Nazi Germany. The story sticks faithfully to its Weimar setting, but includes a number of speeches written to resonate with Americans after 2001. It's called, not by accident, Times Like These.

Meta Wolf, in real life, was a Jewish actress in Berlin married to a more famous German actor named Joachim Gottschalk. When Gottschalk became a film star in the late '30s, the Nazis took notice of his marriage and tried to deport both Meta and the pair's son to the Jewish ghetto Theresienstadt. Before the goon squad arrived, Gottschalk committed suicide with his family in their Berlin apartment.

O'Keefe leaves the son out of this story. He replaces Gottschalk with a struggling Aryan-blond actor named Oscar Weiss, who begins to get plum roles at the Prussian State Theater as the Nazis rededicate art and culture to the glory of the German Volk. His wife, called Meta Wolf, is a famous screen star, admired even by Hermann Goering, but her Jewish blood becomes an obstacle. First she's hired by the theater to play Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, then she's demoted, then (for no reason) fired. In the meantime, her husband gets to play Petrucchio -- the role of his life.

Strange Bedfellows: Oscar (Norbert 
Weisser) believes his intimacy with Nazi 
power will save his Jewish wife (Laurie 
O'Brien).
Ken Friedman
Strange Bedfellows: Oscar (Norbert Weisser) believes his intimacy with Nazi power will save his Jewish wife (Laurie O'Brien).

Details

Through Feb. 22

Also playing Feb. 26-29 at the Julia Morgan Theater, 2640 College (at Derby), Berkeley. Tickets are $20-28; call 285-8080 or visit www.atjt.com

Traveling Jewish Theater, 470 Florida (between 16th and 17th streets), S.F.

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Oscar and Meta both understand and despise the Nazis. They stay in Berlin because of Oscar's career; they think it would be a laugh if Meta coached him to give stunning, sarcastic performances as Petrucchio (and, later, Hamlet) in Nazified productions of Shakespeare. Their idea is to show the Nazis what they are without giving them a reason to fire Oscar, the way Goya made subtle fun of the Spanish nobility by painting great portraits of them.

So Meta turns down a chance to escape Germany and teaches her second-rate husband to be an impressive actor. In the meantime Oscar grows close to Prussian State Theater director Gustav Gründgens (a real-life Nazi collaborator remembered for his snakelike Mephistopheles in a 1960 film of Faust), and even meets Goebbels and Goering. He believes his intimacy with power will protect his Jewish wife.

O'Keefe's plot is compelling, and he tries to be very specific about how totalitarianism creeps up on a society. To him the Reichstag fire of 1933 -- for which Hitler blamed the Communists and banned the party -- serves as a parallel between Hitlerism and the war on terror. Oscar and Meta watch the fire from their apartment window. At first Oscar can't believe the Nazis would "destroy their own parliament building" to discredit their enemies, but later he says, "First the election without the mandate, then the catastrophe. ... The objective is to create a state of continuous emergency."

Is that what's happening here in America in 2004? A lot of people find the argument worthwhile. Times Like These premiered in Los Angeles in late 2002 and ran for more than seven months, garnering awards and recognition from the L.A. Weekly, the L.A. Times, and the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle. O'Keefe is a well-respected playwright who co-founded the now-defunct Blake Street Hawkeyes (of Berkeley) and worked with S.F.'s Magic Theatre in its fertile 1970s period. The play is well performed by Laurie O'Brien, as Meta, and Norbert Weisser, as Oscar, who grows frightening during his rehearsal speeches as a brown-shirted Petrucchio and Hamlet. Weisser has a sensual German voice that makes his megalomaniac scenes ambiguous and eerie; you're never sure whether Oscar likes being close to Gründgens and the other Nazis or not. O'Brien delivers a number of terrific speeches, but also forces a few scenes, like a fainting spell by Meta after the Reichstag fire.

The show has only one major flaw -- short, stuttering scenes punctuated by long blackouts. On the night I saw it these blackouts were sluggish enough to ruin Act 1. Act 2 redeemed the play, but the blackouts still tended to sap whatever energy Weisser and O'Brien brought to each scene.

The more I think about the Hitler parallel, though, the less I buy it. Our president is a fool who doesn't even know how to lie, the PATRIOT Act is loathsome, and we bungled our way into Iraq. But Weimar Germany is the wrong model for what's happening to the United States -- not at all the right way to understand it. We're not a compact little country ruled by systematic racists and hypernationalists. (Iraq under Saddam answered that description.) The U.S. is a far-flung republic, like ancient Rome, turning by inevitable degrees into a corrupt empire. Times Like These works as a flashy warning that in the end doesn't map to our times very well. When America wakes up to find itself ruled by an absolutist, there will be no Kristallnacht, no Brownshirts, no piles of burning books. Instead there might be a president who's consolidated his position for what seemed like the best of reasons -- war, mounting national debt -- by encouraging a pliable Senate to grant him vast, undemocratic powers.

Not real flashy. But that's how Caesar did it, long before Hitler was born.

 
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