Taking Sides
Reviewed by David Kashimba
Photo by Charles Jarrett

Playhouse West in Walnut Creek marches to a very timely drumbeat as it delves into the moral obligations of art and artists during a time of war. Set in occupied Berlin in 1946, Taking Sides is a searing look at German artists who chose to stay in their country during the rise of Hitler.

The play, written by Ronald Harwood (Academy Award winner for The Pianist), is almost Faustian in stature and zeros in on one of the most controversial artists of his time, Willhelm Furtwangler, the conductor of the Berlin Symphonic Orchestra. Did Furtwangler stay in Germany out of concern for art and the German people at a time when books were being burned and Jewish artists and musicians were vanishing? Or did he make a pact with the Devil (Hitler) for his own self-gain?

This is the drama’s premise. A U.S. Army Major (Raffi Kondy) becomes the grand inquisitor bent on proving that even though Furtwangler (Jonathan Farwell) helped many Jewish musicians to escape Germany, and spoke against Nazi policies toward Jews, his musical stardom coincided with the rise to power of the Nazi party and he took full advantage of his position.

The drama is heightened by the fact that Lieutenant David Wills (Greg Ayers), an American officer of Jewish heritage, sides with Furtwangler as does Emmi Straube (Nina Auslander) whose father, an officer in the German army, was part of the plot to assassinate Hitler. Two other characters, Helmuth Rode (Robert Hamm) and Tamara Sachs (Deb Note-Farwell), walk that narrow broken line down the middle of the road.

The acting is so good in this production that you’d swear you’re watching the real life event enfold in front of you. The actors that played the main parts of Furtwangler and the major did a lot of historical research into the conductor’s life and each came to believe in the very opposite views of the character they portrayed. It’s this conviction that sets this drama on fire with an energy that burns its way into the audience’s psyche.

Director Lois Grandi took special care to emphasize character development and dramatic impact in this multilevel play allowing the metaphors and symbolism to breathe naturally out of the action. But there are volumes of philosophical debate woven into the fabric of this drama that writers such as Goethe and Thomas Mann would have thoroughly enjoyed. And, like any work of art, the thoughts and emotions evoked speak a universal language that transcends time. Though the focus is on the aftermath of WWII, veterans of the Vietnam War and the conflicts with Iraq will also be touched by this drama as will every one of us who are now military or civilian soldiers in a new war on terror.

For tickets to this excellent production call (925) 943-7469 or visit www.playhousewest.org.

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