Brian Tilley and Simon Laherty
Brian Tilley and Simon Laherty Credit: Jeff Busby

Suppose I told you that Australia’s Back to Back Theatre works with “intellectually disabled” actors? What would you expect from one of their shows? Drama therapy? Elementary theater games? A bunch of sweet simpletons making an endearing hash of, say, a scene from The Odd Couple? Or The Boys Next Door? I know I imagined all sorts of feel-good crap—until I saw a DVD of Back to Back’s Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, as staged at Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne. Believe me, the thing is utterly, wittily, sometimes even brutally crap-free.

Ganesh is an evening-length, devised work performed by a cast that includes one man with Down syndrome, three with pronounced but less easily identifiable handicaps, and a fifth we’ll call normal. A study in self-reflexiveness, it follows four intellectually disabled men and, yes, their normal director as they develop a show about the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh, and what happens when he’s sent to 1940s Germany to take back the swastika—the benign ancient symbol that Hitler stole and twisted, both morally and graphically, so as to transform it into hate’s logo. Scenes of backstage conflict and comedy alternate with visually arresting glimpses of Ganesh’s progress to the heart of the Nazi apocalypse. Played by ensemble member Brian Tilley in a full-head elephant mask, the god suggests Babar in hell.

The notion of what constitutes a disability is in constant play here. Jewishness is certainly a gross aberration in Hitler’s Germany, but certain kinds of abnormality might save you from the ovens if Auschwitz’s “Angel of Death,” Josef Mengele, finds them interesting. Ganesh himself is both a freak and a divinity. And in the context of his company, the normal director’s hidden anomalies are exposed. It’s an intriguing, powerful piece of work that simultaneously depends on handicap and demonstrates the speciousness of the term.