Pages

Monday, October 16, 2017

Riveted to Watch on the Rhine

The Guthrie's latest suspenseful show lands you smack into fall ... and fascism. 


Photo by Dan Norman

It's night. It's dark. It's dangerous. The leading man dashes in for a brief moment, long enough to kiss his wife, embrace his children and slide to the car waiting outside. His furtive movements belie his overwhelming fear, which is justifiable: he has just killed a man, and he will not be returning to this house.

Photo by Dan Norman

So ends Watch on the Rhine, Lillian Hellman's darkly gorgeous play now showing at the Guthrie. Filled with understated urgency and thoughtful evolution, Watch on the Rhine is a call to action that retains its power more than 75 years after it first aired.

Photo by Dan Norman

So how did we get here, to the furtive movements and waiting car and silent tension? We begin in that same house, that of Fanny Farrelly, a wealthy American woman enjoying the height of leisure in her senior years. Fanny's son David lives with her, as well as two long-term guests from war-embattled Europe: Teck de Brancovis and his wife Marthe. The house is abuzz at the news that Sara Muller, Fanny's long-absent daughter, will be soon arriving with her husband, Kurt, and their children. The reunion is awkward but loving, and everyone heaves a sigh of relief that they are actually glad to see each other. Only one thing could spoil this reunion, and it does: ill-kept secrets.

Photo by Dan Norman

Based on Hollywood's tendency to overdo it on the World War II drama, I think we all know why an anti-fascist rebel and an Eastern European aristocrat wouldn't get along very well at this time. What I can't convey very well, and what you'll have to (and should) head to the Guthrie to witness, is the breathless tension with which this relationship is executed. Teck and Kurt circle each other like sharks to the slaughter throughout the show, and there are no easy answers or happy endings when they finally come to blows. This is a world in which choices are made between terrible and awful, and there is no easy way out. It's a beautifully executed denouement, and it's one of the only times I've ever felt that two intermissions were not only appropriate but necessary to let the play's sickening necessities fully sink in.

Photo by Dan Norman

The cast is clearly all-in on this story. Caitlin O'Connell is marvelous as Fanny, bringing a salty joie de vivre to her part that is sharp and hilarious in the best tradition of the grand dames of old Hollywood. Kate Guentzel is pointed and vivacious as Teck's estranged wife Marthe, and her stinging remarks are the first hint that something is amiss in this home despite its splendor. Sarah Agnew is deftly resilient as Sarah, allowing her heartbreak, frustration and resolution to shine through. Jonathan Walker is the cast's weak link as Teck, but still manages to convey the sniveling selfishness that defines Teck's unhappy life. The standout is Elijah Alexander in his Guthrie debut as Kurt. Alexander is swift, strong, troubled and resolute all at once. His quiet observation of the family drama unfolding before him conveys mountains with just a glance, and his bravado performance at the end does a lovely job of demonstrating the horrifying sacrifices heroes must make in real life. Alexander IS this show's gravitas, and he keeps us all level headed as the plot descends into madness.

Photo by Dan Norman

The set, a beautifully imagined drawing room by Neil Patel, is quietly luxurious, filled with the kind of expensively simple objets d'art that define the homes of the upper class. Costumes are richly arrayed in 1940s silhouettes and lavishly printed luxury fabrics, the sheen of which we can see glistening from the audience. Raquel Barreto hit the nail on the head with this apparel, and you'll drool over some of the play's beautiful garments. Ingenious backlighting from Alexander Nichols keeps the time of day clear and casts just enough shadow to keep us in suspense, with almost a film noir vibe. And I wish the various European accents, overseen by Vocal Coach Lucinda Holshue, were a little more acutely pronounced, but it' nice to hear a global inflection coming from the dialogue on stage.

Photo by Dan Norman

Watch on the Rhine is part of a series of troubled times-themed plays that will be gracing the Guthrie's stages this year. It's dark material is suited to the damp chill descending as we go deeper into fall, and it's hard not to feel that Hellman's strong call to action is still profoundly relevant today. Watch on the Rhine's quiet, insistent urgency that all of us, of every age and ability, give all we have - lives included - to fend off the lockstep march of fascism as it sweeps the globe is unfortunately all too familiar in our era. Perhaps, if we listen, this time we can end it for good. Watch on the Rhine plays through November 5 at the Guthrie; tickets and more information can be found by clicking on this link.