Fellow Travelers

Stage Left Theatre

A little more than a month ago a Halliburton subsidiary scored a government contract, worth up to $385 million, to build detention centers throughout the United States. The centers are meant to support Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the event of what the company called an immigration “emergency” or “the rapid development of new programs.” ICE wouldn’t comment on what urgent new programs might require several 5,000-person prisons, but as Daniel Ellsberg suggested, “almost certainly this is preparation for a roundup after the next 9/11 for Mid-Easterners, Muslims and possibly dissenters.”

Local playwright Margaret Lewis doesn’t need developments like this to give her emotionally complex, morally confounding Fellow Travellers urgency, but the timeliness of this Stage Left world premiere does add a certain extra chill. The play, which is about Nazi censorship and its repercussions, focuses on German art students and best friends Karl and Max. Karl is a committed modernist who paints jarring compositions in unnatural colors, a darling of the German avant-garde, while Max is a neoclassical landscape painter dismissed as a brilliant technician out of touch with the times. Then Hitler’s aesthetic predilections become state policy. (“Anyone who sees and paints a sky green and fields blue ought to be sterilized,” he once said.) In one of the fuhrer’s many rapidly developed “new programs,” the art department chair–who encourages students to create new, idiosyncratic work–disappears. His replacement, who champions Aryan form and beauty, expels Karl and grooms Max for official success.

Lewis manages to transform the usual issues in plays about art–freedom of expression versus censorship, tradition versus innovation, truth versus political reality–into life-and-death human dilemmas. Her nuanced depiction of Max, whom she could have made into a tragic or villainous tool of the Nazi party, is one of the best things about Fellow Travellers. Though Max dislikes the ruling party, a brilliant career awaits, and he becomes a Nazi “as a formality” to get his paintings shown. Besides, aren’t artists supposed to keep up with the times? Though he sincerely believes in the soul-restoring properties of classical art, he hates the idea of his friend’s “ugly modernist” work being censored. In fact, once Karl is officially labeled a degenerate and an enemy of the state, Max secretly provides him with the materials he needs to work–an act of treason. In the play’s most provocative moment, Max claims Karl’s best painting as his own. But you’re not sure whether he’s stealing his friend’s thunder or trying to save the canvas from Nazi bonfires, risking being classified a degenerate himself.

Max isn’t a pawn in an easy ethical scheme but a well-meaning, ineffectual crusader for art buffeted by monstrous forces he doesn’t fully comprehend until it’s too late. This shaded depiction is aided by John Sanders’s unassuming but passionate performance in the role. Surprisingly, the champion of artistic freedom and truth, Karl, is in some ways the play’s least sympathetic character: when looming Nazi condemnation forces him to separate from his wife, he seems concerned only about getting paint while in hiding. (And she remains an undeveloped faithful sidekick.)

Lewis intercuts this story with scenes of Karl in Los Angeles in 1973, a paranoid recluse at the end of his renowned artistic career. Karl never explains how he managed to escape Germany, but it’s rumored Max sacrificed his life to get him out. When Karl learns that a young East German woman who’s come to work for him as a housekeeper was working for the Stasi, his paranoia increases: he feels sure that somehow, somewhere, the Nazis are still out to get him. Still, the LA interludes don’t have half the urgency or moral complexity of those in Berlin; too often they feel like a fragmentary tale of improbable friendship awkwardly grafted onto the harrowing historical drama. Only the penultimate scene–set in Germany and involving an ingenious, sobering plot twist that reveals Max’s fate–establishes the necessity of the LA scenes.

To excavate this latent drama, Lewis needs to condense her half-dozen American scenes to two or three. She could also address a few minor implausibilities: how does a Stasi employee manage to come to the United States on an open-ended visa? But she has a strong ally in director David M. Schmitz, whose attention to detail brings out the story’s humanity without diminishing its political scope. She also has an unwitting ally in our current administration, which is creating a better context for the play than any a dramaturge could devise.

When: Through 4/1: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM

Where: Stage Left Theatre, 3408 N. Sheffield

Price: $18-$22

Info: 773-883-8830

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tony V. Martin.