Thursday, July 12, 2012

George Tabori's Mein Kampf at Scena Theatre

Despite the fact that he was an acclaimed playwright and screenwriter in the United States in the years after World War II, it's very rare that American theatres tackle the work of Hungarian-born playwright George Tabori (1914-2007).

And, despite the fact that play was first-written in English, it's even rarer that audiences get to see one of Tabori's most provocative and poetic works, Mein Kampf. So it is something of an event that Scena Theatre (and the Capital Fringe Festival) are presenting Washington, D.C. audiences with this dazzling play about the brutality of history and the resilience of kindness, humor and folklore in the face of evil.

Tabori's play has had a number of productions in German-speaking countries. (Tabori settled in Berlin in the early 1970s.) Mein Kampf presents the young Adolf Hitler as a resident in a flophouse in Vienna's Blutgasse ("Blood Street"), living cheek by jowl with two voluble Jewish men and a host of comic, dreadful and fantastic visitors.

This post is not a review. (The play opens tonight at H Street Playhouse.) Rather, it is a plea to audiences who may be interested in the Holocaust and the tragic sweep of Central Europe's history not to be put off by the play's title. The title is indeed a provocation. But Mein Kampf is dizzyingly complex in its humor, pathos and ugliness. Tabori's play does what only theatre can do with history -- it yokes history's tragedy and ugliness to something physical and intimate. It disrupts our tidy narratives (In this case, literally yanking the reader back into the muck and tumult of postwar Vienna.) Tabori's use of paradox, juxtaposition, violence and sex depict fascism's vicious relationship to Central Europe's Jewish tradition with intense lyricism and pungency. And the playwright's disruptive tactics reveal not just the outcomes of historical hate, but wipe away the squalor and dust of time and thrust hate's green shoots into the audience's face.

Mein Kampf won't be everyone's cup of tea. But don't let the title fool you: Tabori's play is startling and compassionate. For those who can't see this production, the play was also published in the anthology Drama Contemporary: Germany (1996, The Johns Hopkins University Press). 

(Mein Kampf runs from July 12 through August 19. From July 12 to July 28, audience members must also have a Capital Fringe Festival button. See for more details.)