Art is not nice. ---Bertolt Brecht
The whole world would like to rid itself of artists at times. They can be difficult, rigid, indulgent, childish and ridiculously self involved without ever being aware of it. It is only in a totalitarian society, however, that this wish has the possibility of being fulfilled. --from the program note for Degenerate Art
As you enter the cavernous reception area, a bald and bespectacled man in black, his face almost paper white except for lipsticked mouth greets you. Speaking with a heavy German accent he introduces himself as he ushers you into the small theater. It seems his name is Schlump, which in German is slang for messy (an apt description for the emotional mess in which the characters he plays find themselves). The seating area includes a front section with small tables. The stage is divided into three sets on which actors, also in black, stand and pace while the small band tunes up its instruments.. To give the audience a sense of the dark events about to be unfolded -- the systemic destruction of the avant-garde art community in the interest of the less imaginative but solid middle-class "Heil Hitler" chanting Germans -- Herr Schlump imposes himself on the audience with sly jokes and questions like "Anybody here Jewish?"
Is this an annex of the uptown hit musical Cabaret ? Not quite. While the Irondale Ensemble's second-time-around production of Degenerate Art unfolds in a similar burgeoning Nazi-era cabaret and features music importantly, this is hardly a musical. The plot, if you can dig it out of this self-consciously stylized evening, is strictly at the service of the Irondale spirit of political consciousness raising. Its core idea is to recreate the evolution of the Third Reich's 1937 exhibit of avant garde paintings and sculptures confiscated from Germany's museums in order to drive home this "degenerate" art's corruptive influence on the "good German's" simpler, what-you-see-is-what-you-get values.
Not content to go with the inherent docudramatic impact of the famous (or, to be more exact, infamous) Munich exhibit, the company layers its own agit-prop agenda on top of the Nazis' agit-prop exhibit. The purpose is to dramatize the chilling parallels between the insidious Nazi encroachment on artistic independence and the current political and social climate.
It's a fascinating conceit that succeeds better as a comic caper than as a serious play. To wit, we have Hitler and his right-hand art maven Joseph Goebbels, dressed in clown ruffs as they embark on their goal of keeping "culture from being infiltrated by degenerates." Equally amusing are a series of tableaus in which the actors bring some of the offensive art (including some much publicized and denounced American art works) to life. The comic high spot is a confrontation between the clownish Goebbels and Paul Klee. The painter's defense of the metaphor of a painted yellow cow turns interrogation into a vaudeville skit that culminates in a recitation of "how now brown cow" interrupted by an exasperated Goebbels with "this is not Dr. Seuss!"
Another amusing interlude is provided by the Irondale composer/conductor Walter Thompson whose "sound paintings" would surely have earned a "degenerate" rating from the Nazis. But out he pops, not only explaining the hand signals he has invented but leading the audience in a hum-along, buzz-along, coo-along "sound painting" session.
Even the comedy teeters, however, when the dialogue swerves towards contemporary allusions. Some examples of these missteps include a performer who when asked what he thinks of "our Fuehrer" replies "He reminds me of Reagan in the '80s.". ..and having Newt Gingrich turn out to be known to Hitler as "the one who lost his job and we (meaning the Nazis) put him in Bulgaria."
The artist who's story is delineated in greatest detail is the expressionist Emile Nolde who fell out of favor despite his sympathy with Nazi anti-Semitism. Even his part of this dramatic jumble works best when done as a comic sketch -- as when his attempt to paint a realistic portrait of the Fuehrer is sabotaged by his model who's posed in a frame, face and eyes refusing to yield to the artist's brush.
Alas, all too often things turn earnest and the metaphors pile up like the eggs inexplicably cracked on the hapless Nolde's head. This led this reviewer to thoughts that these pretentious and over-extended episodes have caused a worthy idea "to lay an egg and that in the final analysis. Degenerate Art is a rudderless concoction -- a play without a playwright, written as an improvisation by and for an acting ensemble and yet frozen in the form of a "real" play.
Conceived and directed by members of the Irondale Ensemble Project
Directed by Jim Nieson
With Christian Brandjes, Heidi K. Eklund, Melissa Friedman, Michael-David Gordon, Terry Greiss, Sven Miller, Patrena Murray, Ellen Rosenberg and Damen Scranton
Set design: Kennon Rothchild
Costume design: Christianne Myers
Lighting design: Herrick Goldman
Original music: Walter Thompson, performed live by the Walter Thomspon Orchestra
Film by Chris Faust
Irondale Ensemble, Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave, betw. 9th and 10th St. (212/ 633-1292).
11/24/98-12/12/98; opened 11/25/98
Seen 11/25/98 and reviewed by Elyse Sommer