August 10 – September 23, 2001
By Charles A. Duncombe Jr.
Directed by Frédérique Michel
based on the text Frederick of Prussia by Heiner Müller, translated by Carl Weber
Cast: Rachel Boyle, Maureen Byrnes, Chris Codol, Ruthie Crossley, Damien DePaolis, David E. Frank, Richard Grove, Jed Low, Paul M. Rubenstein, Tara Tobin, Christian YoungMiller
New Times LA
By Edmund Newton
13 Sept 2001
Dissident Marxist, protégé of Bertolt Brecht, director of the prestigious Berliner Ensemble, the late East German playwright Heiner Müller always got a lot more attention from European intellectuals than from even the hippest American theater junkies. If a Müller play ever came to Los Angeles before now, it must have been during some well-meaning extracurricular affair sponsored by a university German department. Most meat-and-potatoes theatergoers in this country have never even heard of him. Now comes Charles A. Duncombe Jr.’s adaptation of Müller’s play about Frederick the Great, which Duncombe has titled Frederick of Prussia/George W’s Dream of Sleep, at the City Garage.
“Adaptation” doesn’t quite describe what Duncombe has done here. Müller’s text is fragmentary, a few hallucinatory scenes from Prussian history, which Müller (who died in 1995) has invited would-be collaborators to use as a platform for fuller exposition of his notion of the historic role of German political repression and authoritarianism. Duncombe, a longtime member of City Garage’s creative team, preserves Müller’s dark humor and his idea of the sinister continuum of political repression stretching from Frederick to the contemporary White House. But he has gone far beyond adaptation, rewrite or even reworking of Müller’s skeletal script. The result is a lengthy, sometimes witty, often brilliant but ultimately turgid American satire on the modern corporate state.
Frederick, Prussia’s iron ruler for almost 50 years in the latter part of the 18th century, is usually remembered as an enlightened king who tried to eliminate corruption in his government, instituted legal reforms and promoted freedom of religion. But he was also a ruthlessly aggressive militarist who didn’t hesitate to lead his army across Prussia’s borders to take big bites out of neighboring Austria and Poland. And he was a cruel, absolute ruler at home. Raised by a sadistic father — Frederick Wilhelm — who once made Frederick watch as his best friend was executed in front of a firing squad, Frederick had acquired, by the time he inherited the throne in 1740, all of the characteristics of a bloodthirsty, fun-loving Caligula. That’s Müller’s take, anyway. Hitler role model, anyone?
The first act, which sticks largely to Müller’s script, shows the poetry-loving Frederick being brutalized by his father, then turning into a murderous king, who forces himself sexually on a woman as her husband is being executed in a courtyard below. Just so we don’t forget what Duncombe and Müller are up to here, the stage brims with sadistic dominatrixes with whips, actors posing as snarling attack dogs, an actor portraying the American president asleep on a throne, and slide images of Ronald Reagan, whom Frederick’s martinet father lovingly refers to as “Grandfather.” Frederick ends that part of the show with an eerily familiar finger-waving, fist-squeezing diatribe against those who coddle weakness. Then, with top hat and cane, he leads a chorus in a paean to fascism to the tune of “Fascinatin’ Rhythm.”
Compared to the second act, though, this is the height of refined subtlety. Frederick, played with gleeful derangement by David E. Frank, is now the host of a children’s television puppet show, with more sideshow images of sadism and bedlam (a man in a truss designed to keep him from masturbating, for example), then a smooth-talking witness before a congressional committee. Duncombe uses the garish scenes to analyze the current state of American politics. But those who come expecting satire of the Saturday Night Live variety will be disappointed. The Bush on the stage isn’t the familiar SNL dufus with the slow grin, but a faceless king who wakes up at the end to deliver a long, senseless monologue about power.
The idea here is that, through clever market strategy, the repressiveness and brutality of Frederick and Hitler have been rendered unnecessary, as the oppressed have been coopted by global consumerism. Duncombe explains the notion intelligently and effectively — but endlessly. It’s as if a theater company had decided to put on a production of a George Bernard Shaw play, say Major Barbara or Saint Joan, by reading aloud the playwright’s lengthy, brilliantly expository preface rather than performing the play. The cast of 11 performs smoothly; particularly impressive are Richard Grove as the snarling Frederick Wilhelm and Ruthie Grove as a dithering psychiatrist. In the end, let’s be grateful that the 14-year-old City Garage, under its restless director Frederique Michel, persists, flirting with danger to bring us experimental and avant garde plays that no one else will touch.
by Brad Schreiber
22 Aug 2001
Frederick II of Prussia, who ruled Germany for 46 years, whose military genius was revered by Bismarck, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Hitler, is a fine starting point for this incendiary patchwork quilt of ideas, information, and dramatic outrageousness. While playwright Charles Duncombe Jr. takes some side trips through history and theme that leave some holes in the tapestry, and some unraveling of performances among the 11 players, this is an adventuresome, at times confrontational work not to be ignored.
In the weakest way, Duncombe connects our current president with the material, with George W’s dozing presence awakening at the end for a poetic rant. However, Duncombe and director Frederique Michel are most fortunate to have David Frank as the titular character, who embodies not only the hysteria of Frederick but also his countenance, as when his ruler father Frederick Wilhelm (Richard Grove) executes his best friend as punishment, having declared as his credo, “Never forget the frailty upon which order is built.” Getting a bit lost with suggestions of Frederick’s unresolved sexuality, the play finds its legs in his assumption of power, wherein his cruel logic expressed to a widow-to-be upon the upcoming execution of her husband shows both his self-reflection and masochistic genes inherited from his dead dad. “Fascinatin’ Fascists,” a song parody, has some smart lyrics and gives us a taste of the stranger sojourn to come.
Act Two takes us into a truly bizarre dimension. A takeoff on the Howdy Doody children’s TV show introduces an inappropriate discourse from Doctor Dee (a joyfully up-tempo Ruthie Crossley) on sexuality and social control, with lurid sex jokes from a marionette. From there, we have Frederick in a McCarthy-esque hearing, which cleverly debates how his militarism, belied by societal reforms, can dovetail with American capitalism. On “Celebrity Soup,” a TV talk show, Frederick, despite being 280 years old, whips the audience into frenzy, until he explains how consumer society, for the betterment of all, has subverted and overtaken political expression and, for the most part, individuality.
The work, based on a text by Heiner Müller, is far too long and would do better to minimize the stodgy 18th century melodrama, tighten all segments, and think hard about a stronger connective tissue. That said, Frank is remarkably energetic and holds it all together, always seeming on the edge of a breakdown, despite the rich verbiage of Duncombe, who combines an impressive authority of poetry, political discourse, and outlandish stage frenzy. Inevitably, though, one must choose only so many targets.
31 Aug 2001
by Steven Leigh Morris
“I am beginning to forget my own text,” laments an Actor (Chris Codol), echoing Mednick’s equation of words with life’s meaning, as he impersonates German playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing in Charles A. Duncombe Jr.’s Frederick of Prussia/George W.’s Dream of Sleep, adapted from Heiner Müller’s prose. “I am a sieve. More and more words fall through,” the Actor continues, describing Lessing’s descent toward a deathlike sleep.
“Soon I shall hear no voice but my own, which asks for forgotten words.”
This Beckett-like lyricism comes on the heels of a brutal portrait of the 18th-century tyrant and militarist Frederick the Great (David E. Frank, a reed in wolf’s clothing), whose soft spot for high culture, including Lessing’s plays, was beaten out of him by his savage father, Frederick-Wilhelm (Richard Grove). (Those childhood tortures included having his son witness the execution of his best friend – just to toughen him up. It worked.)
Müller, in 1976, toyed primarily with the duality of the artist and the soldier — the empathically connected and the disconnected – against a backdrop of historical atrocities. Duncombe takes it a step further (as he did with Müller’s Medea texts last year, at this same venue), serving up our global corporate economy, with its astonishingly efficient technologies for mass marketing and consumption, as the logical extension of Frederick’s military planning. To do this, Duncombe brings Frederick before a U.S. congressional subcommittee, where he wows the senators with utopian free-trade dogma. As the play mixes rants with poetry and bouncy choreographed ditties (e.g., “Fascinating Fascists” set to the tune of “Fascinating Rhythm”), a crowned George W. (Paul M. Rubenstein) sits dozing on a throne-on-high, set against a projected cloudscape backdrop.
The result — under Frederique Michel’s direction, and fueled by devotion to the material — is at once appealing and belabored. Flashes of visual beauty and linguistic playfulness mitigate exasperation with scenes that make their point twice, then thrice, and with dialogue that could have been lifted from the editorial pages of The Nation. Turning doctrine into poetry has been the challenge of playwrights from Odets to Brecht to Edward Bond and, of course, Müller. Duncombe Jr. doesn’t yet meet that challenge, though he’s well on the way.