Theater

Tony Kushner's 'Bright Room': Liberal Use Of Hyperbole

Alexander Strain and Lindsay Allen in Tony Kushner's
Alexander Strain and Lindsay Allen in Tony Kushner's "A Bright Room Called Day," an early work by the author of "Angels in America," being presented by Rorschach Theatre. (By Colin Hovde)

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By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Before Tony Kushner hit the jackpot with "Angels in America," he wrote something called "A Bright Room Called Day," and in it he equated Reagan's America with Hitler's Germany.

Kushner being Kushner -- that is, burning with ideological fire, thoroughly grounded in history and theory, and preposterously gifted with literary agility -- that wild swing of a thesis gains surprising traction onstage. "Overstatement is your friend," says Zillah, the angry young 1980s woman who keeps interrupting the conventionally told drama of a circle of left-leaning friends during Hitler's rise to power. "Use it."

Rorschach Theatre is the right company to embrace the overstatement, and director Rahaleh Nassri's production at the Casa del Pueblo Methodist Church's modest Sanctuary Theatre is tough-minded and, in its way, beautiful. Not handsome, and never pretty -- Jacob Muehlhausen's set is a cheap 1930s Berlin room with bad wallpaper and lighting that Nathaniel John Sebastian Sinnott keeps low, whether it's for a candlelight dinner or because everyone's beginning to hide from the Nazis.

Yet that oddly oversize room is wonderfully used. Note the grandiose shadows cast on a side wall at the end of an inspired bit of speechifying, or the way the fireplace on the other side of the stage magically expands to accommodate an otherworldly visitor -- the Devil, played with dapper treachery by Matt Dunphy. Best of all are Zillah's "interruptions," as Kushner labels them. Almost entirely separate from the well-acted saga of the German friends, these interjections are here rendered on film. (The multimedia design is by Grady Weatherford, who also plays a feisty one-eyed Hungarian named Husz.) Projected on a wide section of wall high at the back of the stage, Elizabeth Chomko's intermittent appearances as Zillah are riveting. The character is outraged at what she sees as the Reagan administration's consistent erosions of democratic principles and human rights, and in witty bits filmed both indoors and amid the marble edifices of the Mall, the punk-styled Chomko makes Zillah's case with barely controlled fury.

Zillah is the play's real gambit, the in-your-face thing that makes it zing, and yet the slow-motion destruction of the Germans grows terribly absorbing, too. One of the things that makes Kushner such a vibrant writer is the way he luxuriates in exuberance and sorrow, emotions that these intense Berliners have in spades. His intellectual characters are tremendously passionate and expressive, so it's hard not to care about what they care about, and what happens to them.

Nassri's actors don't have total command of the political vocabulary in the first few scenes of the play, but once Dunphy (not as the Devil this time) and Katie Atkinson make a sprightly appearance as Communist Party factotums bickering like an old married couple, everything pretty much clicks. Cam Magee puts fervor into overdrive as a communist artist, Alexander Strain glimmers delightfully as the coterie's gay, Noel Coward figure, and Lauren Judith Krizner slinks around effectively as an aspiring film actress. Only Ellen Young's rosiness as an indigent old woman popping in from the fire escape seems amiss.

The counterweight for Chomko's flamboyant despair as Zillah is the deeply felt turn by Lindsay Allen as a minor German actress named Agnes. It's the ordinariness of the character that registers so strongly -- the way that this unremarkable figure emerges out of Kushner's colorful gallery and essentially becomes, with Zillah, the soul of the show. Agnes turns out to be the figure most terrorized by the change in the political climate, and Allen powerfully responds to the fluctuating barometric pressure.

Kushner has suggested the play could be performed without Zillah's contemporary interruptions, but after watching this production and seeing how neatly she jibes with our saturation in partisan documentaries and aggressively positioned cable news, she seems indispensable. Zillah continues to capture the frustrated, unapologetically shrill cries of the out-of-power left: It's terribly easy to imagine "Bright Room" as having played on a never-ending loop in disaffected liberal districts ever since, to put it as Zillah would, the presidency was seized from Al Gore by the Supreme Court. It is, in ways Kushner implicitly forecast, a melancholy rhapsody for the folks who bleed blue.

A Bright Room Called Day, by Tony Kushner. Directed by Rahaleh Nassri. Costumes, Franklin Labovitz; sound design, Matthew Nielson. About 2 1/2 hours. Through May 21 at the Sanctuary Theatre in the Casa del Pueblo Methodist Church, 1459 Columbia Rd. NW. Call 800-494-8497 or visit http://www.boxofficetickets.com/rorschach .


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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