Live Bait Theater

Ernst Toller would probably have liked Live Bait’s version of No More Peace!: it’s well paced, broad, and yet somehow sensible. That Live Bait has managed, in an era when the communist world is crumbling, to do a credible job with a play that positions Karl Marx as a hero is–like it or not–an achievement of sorts.

A fiery Marxist, Toller looked at communism not merely as a formula for a new world order but as a kind of religion. For him it provided the only explanation for the chaos that followed the First World War, in which he had served as a German-army infantryman. His devotion to communism eventually landed him behind bars, accused of treason; and when one of his plays, The Transformation, was so successful that he was offered amnesty, he turned it down because his jailmates, charged with the same crimes, would not be pardoned as well. Toller committed suicide while exiled in New York in 1939, as Hitler prepared to advance on Europe. No More Peace!, written just a few years earlier, had virtually predicted the rise of Nazism.

Toller was unrelenting in his politics, and Live Bait’s production of No More Peace! is loyal to that spirit. But surprisingly, the play doesn’t come off simply as propaganda, or as a two-dimensional confrontation between good guys and bad guys; in fact, as cartoonish as they often get, the players all seem to have multiple dimensions, and even the most evil of the lot seems capable of love.

The whole mess begins on Mount Olympus, rendered by Toller not as utopia but as a kind of benign neutral space. A very bored (and improbably rewarded) Napoleon baits a wimpy Saint Francis about the nature of man. Napoleon argues that man loves war; Saint Francis proposes that peace is at the core of the human heart. To prove his point, Napoleon suggests using the tiny Balkan state of Dunkelstein, where a massive peace celebration is taking place.

In spite of Saint Francis’s reluctance, Napoleon sends Dunkelstein a spurious declaration of war, then gleefully watches as the little country forgets its devotion to peace and convulses in preparation for war. Before long an inept hairdresser has taken over the kingdom, more charmed by power than concerned with real issues; all foreigners are jailed; and the cornfields on the outskirts of town are burned to a crisp to draw out any spies who might have sought refuge there. That the enemy is never seen or heard doesn’t keep the people of Dunkelstein from believing in it.

All that Napoleon predicted comes true in Dunkelstein. In fact, the Dunkelstein affair goes beyond Napoleon’s wildest dreams. Trying to get things back in order, Saint Francis asks Socrates to go to earth and reason with the Dunkelsteiners, who are rapidly sinking into chaos. But Socrates, with his benevolent logic, is quickly imprisoned. “Reason is the invention of the Brazilians!” declares Cain, Dunkelstein’s hairdresser cum dictator. “In wartime, the voice of reason is high treason,” adds Socrates woefully.

Toller’s play isn’t subtle; it pokes bitter fun not only at knee-jerk reactionaries, war profiteers, and egomaniacal heads of state, but also a little at the common Joe who thinks the insane goings-on are out of his hands and resigns himself to them as inevitable. The songs, by Stuart Rosenberg, are funny, cynical, even a little morbid–but right on the mark. Live Bait has added little touches, like the use of gas masks, that underscore the present-day relevance of Toller’s themes, but mercifully the piece never becomes dogmatic or petulant. The poignant ending is a little odd, but so subdued that it works. All in all, No More Peace! is a pretty fun play about a pretty serious subject.

Paul Quinn’s snappy direction is perfectly underscored by Sharon Evans’s elaborate set. The floors are covered with a gigantic map of Europe, and the backdrop is like a giant pop-up card, changing easily from Mount Olympus ro Cain’s throne room to the streets of Dunkelstein. The costumes are colorful and clownish, and perfectly matched by the characters’ farcical whiteface.

The cast, most of whom play multiple roles, are uniformly good. Of special note, however, are Phil Ridarelli, who plays Cain with delicious venom, and Eric Winzenried, who takes turns playing Napoleon and Jacob, a Brazilian in love with the daughter of Dunkelstein’s mayor.