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A CurtainUp Review
The Winning Side
By Elyse Sommer
Like Hannah and Martin, The Winning Side, currently in its world premiere at Theatre Row, takes us on a back and forth journey through events before, during and after World War II. The central figure is Wernher von Braun, the engineer at the forefront of rocket technology (in Germany during the war, in the United States afterwards) and space science. Von Braun's tricky history with the Nazis and our embrace of him after the war, makes this very much a morality play—. a conundrum about the ethical compromises made in the interest of a nation's political and technological well being.
Von Braun was famous, but only as a rocket engineer. The controversy swirling around an ex-Nazi being allowed to work here and become an American citizen kept his name pretty much missing from our space age history books. However, Wallert gained access to long hidden background information about van Braun's personal and professional life that helped him to create a play to spin these facts into a drama that manages to entertain, inform and leave the audience reflecting on the issues relating to ethics and the importance of science.
While The Winning Side is not quite as consistently and emotionally gripping as Hannah and Martin was, Ron Russell has again supported the story with interesting craftsmanship. His high tech production is in keeping with the pivotal character's career and enables the script's structural logistics to work fluidly.
Set and projection designer Chika Shimizu's few realistic props suffice for the romantic subtext which, though fictionally embroidered, is fact based. Her projections add vivid historical images to the onstage action. Animator Sho Hanafusa's projected upstage timeline at the beginning of each scene clues viewers in on the time frame and who's who in the forthcoming action.
Though there are just four actors, Devin E. Haqq ably fills the stage with more than a dozen characters, including several presidents (NASA Launch Control,BBC Reporter, Neil Armstrong, Photographer,Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, President John F. Kennedy, J. Lee Thompson, Army Command, Creon, Actor, Voice of the Director, Stage Manager, Walt Disney, Heinrich Himmler, Wiesemann, Pierre, and SS Rocket Command).
Since we've all become accustomed to color blind casting, having Sullivan Jones (best known for Looming Tower, the TV series based on Lawrence Wright's Pulitzer Prize winning book) play von Braun is not a problem. However, the script calls for von Braun to be a persuasive charmer as well as a morally weak, arrogant opportunist; since Sullivan Jones plays up von Braun's charm side, it's not all that easy to relate to him. I'll admit that I find any portrayal of a former Nazi as even slightly charming hard to accept.
A linguist might not find all the accents letter perfect. But with the help of dialect coach Diego Daniel Pardo, von Braun's German passes muster and the geographic origins of Haaq's many personas are also clear.
There's one very welcome exception to the songs used to enliven the introductions being only snippet-sized. That's the satirical song writer Tom Lehrer's witty "Werner von Braun" which is presented in full at midpoint.
Finally, if you're unfamiliar with or have forgotten details of events covered in The Winning Side, I suggest that you get to the theater in time to read the time line notes the playwright has included in the program. To further enhance your experience, you might also want to stay for the post performance discussion about the play's subject matter. The company has scheduled one after each performance.
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The Winning Side by James Wallert
Directed By Ron Russell
Cast: Sullivan Jones (Wernher von Braun), Melissa Friedman (Margot(, Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr. (Major Tagger), Devin E. Haqq((multiple roles)
Set/projections: Chika Shimizu
Lighting: Cat Tate Starmer
Costume: Betsy Rugg-Hinds
Sound: Ron Russell
Animator: Sho Hanafusa
Dialect Coach: Diego Daniel Pardo
Technical Director: Jacob Womack
Wigs: Briana Capo
Production Stage Manager: Molly Minor Eurstis
Epic Theatre Ensemble at the Acorn on Theater Row
Running Time: 2 hours, including intermission
From 10/03/18; opening 10/08/18; closing 11/04/18.
Wed-Sat at 8pm, Sun 3pm.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 10/05 press preview
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