But, Mr. Kushner, Should It?
This review deals with the March 2014 staging of Brundibar & But the Giraffe put on by the Underground Railway Theater, a resident theater company of the Central Square Theater. While a large portion of the writeup deals with Brundibar & But The Giraffe as a work itself, notes about actors and specific staging cannot be assumed to be relevant elsewhere.
Great casting for all the adult roles; Tony Kushner's writing ability
The director (the only name I'm going to drop in this entire writeup is Scott Edmiston, the artistic director's, because he did a horrifically bad job with the show); children.
Laughing at bathos apparently makes me the bad guy, at least to the bitchy woman in front of me.
In the interest of full disclosure
, I am friends with the actress who played Aninku. She is very talented, and also the reason I went to the show in the first place.
Roughly two weeks ago, I announced to a few friends that because a friend of ours was playing in an opera in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I would be going on March 22nd to see her. They were invited if they wanted, but I was going hell or high water.
After we ended up making more concrete plans, we ended up a group of five people headed into Central Square to try and find a theater to watch something that sounded vaguely German and (this was the part that excited me) involved Tony Kushner. Once we managed to find our seats (the cheapest in the house, befitting five students), one friend of mine who wasn't too into theater in general and just came because of the people turned to me and asked what exactly he was about to get into.
That was a very good question. Brundibar & But the Giraffe (the ampersand is theirs, by the way) is actually two separate works; Brundibar is an hour-long opera written by a Jewish man during the Holocaust which was adapted by Tony Kushner, while But the Giraffe is a half-hour long curtain raiser straight play designed to give the opera some context in the modern world which Kushner entirely wrote. While the two are thematically connected (and the actual musical score of Brundibar plays a large part in the play's drama), the end result comes across as being largely two different shows which share the same purpose and the same cast. The opera was originally performed some 55 times inside a concentration camp. The entire cast and production team died in the camps.
One other friend was a little apprehensive, considering that he was even less of theater person and had agreed to come see a Holocaust opera. I was a bit more optimistic, considering that Tony Kushner had been the driving force between both of the pieces. Still, none of us were exactly sure what to expect once the lights went down.
As soon as the lights went up on the set, I had any of my last vestiges of doubt removed. The set was nice and minimalist, with a little girl (who appeared to be about five, though my guess is that she was closer to her pre-teens) playing around in her bedroom as her mother enters. So begins But the Giraffe, a deep examination of the mentality of German Jews during the Holocaust and, moreover, just how to explain the complicated state of the world to a five-year old. Most of the conflict comes from a fight over packing a suitcase - the little girl wants to bring a stuffed giraffe, her brother wants to bring the score for Brundibar, the rest of the family is worrying about their future and what they shouldn't say around the little girl.
The play itself isn't my favorite thing I've ever seen by Kushner - I mean, Angels is a thing that exists - but it is still very, very well written and is very distinctly Kushner. I'm disappointed that no illegal copies of the script exist online, as I'm sure I missed layers of subtext with only seeing the play once. The play itself is also decently funny, although not in a laugh-out-loud type of way. The basic feeling among my friends was that the play was well acted and worth seeing. While there were a few strange quirks of stage direction - the first moment I was laughing far too hard at was when the family simulated tearing the house apart to pack by holding suitcases directly above their head and sprinting around the little girl, which I am certain was a dramatic and meaningful moment in some poor, possibly senile director's mind - the script and the acting were strong enough to carry the show. However, the play itself only runs for a third of the entire time of the night. There was still the opera to get to.
Brundibar itself is described as being a fairytale opera for children, starring my friend as a little girl alongside a little boy who, together, sing in the market for money and run into trouble when the organ grinder Brundibar objects to them stealing his business. The majority of the cast of But the Giraffe were also in the opera - the family of the little girl were either puppeteers or cast members, and almost the entire family also played an instrument - which lent a nice connection to the two works. My friend was wonderful, the man playing Brundibar was talented enough to make me automatically think less of my own singing abilities, and the kid playing opposite my friend sucked in every way possible but that was okay because she had solos and he didn't. I also noticed that the lack of talent was a problem endemic to the entire children's chorus of the opera - as W.C. Fields put it, you should never work with children or animals, and this opera was a testament to why.
Of course, that was just the casting of this one performance of Brundibar in this one smallish theater. The actual opera itself could best be described as "interesting". Some sung parts sound as though they should be spoken instead, some spoken parts would be better off sung, there's a sequence where the policeman sings about how those who have no money should expect to die with the cheesiest smile on his face (which was apparently inappropriate to laugh at, judging by the looks I got from the judgmental bitch in the row in front of me), and the whole thing comes off roughly as a drug trip. That's not exactly unexpected, considering it was a children's opera, but there was a notable edge to it. The whole thing was rather like watching an episode of Blue's Clues where Blue was shipped off to Auschwitz. At every possible moment the director (I assume it was the director, as there was no way that it got past German censors back when it was performed inside the camps) made sure to remind the audience that the opera was secretly talking about the state of Germany during World War Two, and that everyone there would eventually die. The opera itself was a bit too simplistic for anyone over eight to legitimately enjoy, and I wasn't even able to enjoy it on a "vaguely nostalgic for the times when I would appreciate this sort of show" level due to the rather overt Holocaust undertones.
I don't require everything to have a happy ending. I don't mind thinking during a show. But if you're going to make it so that I would be too uncomfortable to watch your children's fairytale opera with an actual child, you're going to need a much stronger piece than Brundibar.
The actual opera itself is set up by a series of lines in But the Giraffe, where the little girl's brother tries to convince her that she should take the score instead of the stuffed giraffe. The brother mentions that, where the giraffe would only ever be experienced by the one little girl, the score would be able to be appreciated by hundreds or thousands of children for years or an eternity to come.
This is where my central question comes in: But, Mr. Kushner, should it?
Brundibar is not an overly deserving opera. The music is largely repetitive, the plot very simple, and the basic structure largely generic and - excepting the moment in this particular production where suddenly all the children have been transplanted to Auschwitz for no particular reason other than to force that particular subtext down the audience's throats - predictable. While the message is powerful, particularly considering the context of the opera, the message of "stand up to bullies because you can win" is also the message of every other work designed for children ever made in the past twenty years.
This brings up an important point: does the context of a piece of art make up for any other failings? Just because of the long (and very, very tragic - the program includes a long section on how the performance of the opera eventually just became more propaganda for Hitler, which led to the Red Cross being convinced that the concentration camps were fundamentally humane places) history of Brundibar, should we overlook its subpar nature? Does the fact that Tony Kushner informs the audience of the circumstances surrounding the opera make up for the fact that it can't stand on its own anymore?
My decision would be on no. For me, the context of a work of art doesn't make the piece worth any more once you remove it from that context. While I can appreciate the situations surrounding, for instance, photography from the Great Depression, I don't believe the typical images one sees from that period are particularly good photographs.
But that's my opinion. You're free to disagree. And if you do, you might be the sort of person to appreciate Brundibar.
And hey. If you do, it's running until April 6th at the Central Square Theater. And you should pay attention to the girl playing Aninku - word on the street is, she's crazy good.