THE BASICS: In collaboration with Subversive Theatre, the New Phoenix Theatre is presenting Abby Mann’s JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG, directed by Subversive’s Kurt Schneiderman, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through June 4. The venue is at 95 North Johnson Park. Hint: There’s always a lot of parking on Elmwood Avenue. Run time is over 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission. Soft drinks, beer, and wine available. www.newphoenixtheatre.org 716-853-1334.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Four former judges during Germany’s Third Reich are on trial for crimes against humanity. Three magistrates oversee the trial with an American military prosecutor and a German defense attorney. Witnesses are called and testimony, some very graphic, is presented. The courtroom drama is alternated with other scenes where we overhear the Nazis as they await the trial, we meet ordinary Germans, and we also find out that there is pressure on the magistrates to treat the defendants lightly in light of Russia’s advances during the build up to the “Cold War” when German political support will be valuable. The action is easy to follow, but the situation, as we say nowadays, “is complicated.”
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Ostensibly about one trial (of many trials) of Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg, Germany, after World War II, in this case four German judges (in real life twelve), the play is really about how far we will go to protect our country. As in the 1961 Hollywood film (starring Spencer Tracy) which was based on television’s Playhouse 90, there is gruesome (and now familiar) footage of the Nazi death camps, but this is not only a “Jewish” play. One of the most compelling scenes has Richard Lambert as Rudolph Peterson, a man of diminished mental capacity, describing how he was sterilized, as well as his mother.
Standout performances include David Mitchell as Judge Haywood, the chief magistrate, and his chief dissenter Jack Aguguliaro as Judge Ives, Adam Yellen as Colonel Parker, the prosecutor, Ray Boucher as Herr Rolfe, for the defense, John Profeta as Ernst Janning, one of the accused who has a crisis of conscience before our eyes, Emily McCormick as a young German, and Lisa Ludwig as the widow Berholt.
A hallmark of The New Phoenix Theatre is that you hear any incidental music as soon as you enter the theater. It sets the tone for what is to follow. Here we heard the contemplative music from the suites for solo cello by the 18th century German composer Johann Sebastian Bach. And, courtesy of Sound Designer Tom Maker, we heard that music throughout the evening. Very effective.
Kudos as well to set designer Michael Lodick, although he might have had Dan Toner, Carpenter, reinforce it a bit. With all those big, angry actors pounding their fists, I’m not sure it will last the run of the play.
A win and a loss for Costume Designer Maureen Caputo. While the women were convincing, right down to the seam in their stockings, some of the military men did not look put together. That’s probably a budget thing.
The set is simple and effective, with the three magistrates on the bench, upon on the raised stage in front of us, and, on the floor to our left the witness-stand, in the center a table and chair serving many purposes, and to the right the dock for the accused. The New Pheonix Theatre is small and ultimately there are 19 players, with 12 on stage at any given time, but through clever blocking it never seems claustrophobic with one exception. When people are supposed to be on the streets of Nuremberg, there really isn’t anywhere to go, and they look a little neurotic pacing in a confined space.
Everyone will take something different from this play. Many things, actually. But one aspect that seemed very timely was an explanation of the popularity of the demagogue Adolf Hitler and the rise of the Third Reich in post WWI Germany. The working class was feeling especially hard hit by the world-wide economic Depression. People were looking for a scapegoat and Hitler offered answers that appealed to their patriotism. It was the bankers, the Jews, the Gypsies, the Catholics, the trade unionists, the Communists, and others, who were preventing Germany from being great again. And the play kept up the repeated question “How far would you go to save your country?”
The Subversive Theatre has a few different logos. One has the faces of comedy and tragedy with the slogan “Fight Back.” Another has the tag line “Where DISSENT Takes Center Stage.”
The Subversive Theatre has a few different logos. One has the faces of comedy and tragedy with the slogan “Fight Back.” Another has the tag line “Where DISSENT Takes Center Stage.” And so it’s no surprise that the “Director’s Notes” in the playbill don’t pull any punches. To quote at random: “The searing words of Judge Haywood in his verdict – a nation ‘is what it stands for, when standing for something is the most difficult’ – ring out with breath-taking simplicity as a reminder to always hear your conscience over the pounding drum of war, hate, and patriotism…. But…. After Vietnam After Afghanistan? After Iraq? … Can we as Americans sit and watch this tale and pretend to be innocent bystanders….? It can’t happen here you say?…. where every 28 hours another Black man is killed by police, security, or vigilante violence…. We live in a country of stunning wealth and power and yet starvation, exploitation, and desperation are all around us. Can we go on pretending to be as ‘deaf, dumb, and blind’ as the ‘Good Germans’ in this play?”
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!