At first blush, "Ganesh Versus the Third Reich" sounds like a long-lost Monty Python skit about some bizarre time-tripping action-figure wrestling bout.
Indeed, as the title hints, a cosmic smackdown between the pachyderm Hindu god and the German Führer takes center stage in the production from Australia's Back to Back Theatre company, which on Thursday opens a four-night run at UCLA's Freud Playhouse.
But that epic confrontation is only one thread in the show's imaginative tapestry. In "Ganesh," knotty questions about power and control, cultural misappropriation and the nuances of theatrical ethics vie for the audience's attention. Speaking by phone last week, Bruce Gladwin, Back to Back's artistic director, acknowledged that "Ganesh Versus the Third Reich" makes intensive demands both on those watching it and those performing it.
"We are attempting to try and make a work that is going to stretch us as a company and push the boundaries of where we think theater's at," said Gladwin, speaking from New York City, where "Ganesh" played this month at Manhattan's Public Theater as part of the Under the Radar festival. "It requires a little bit of work from the audience; it's not pure entertainment. And it challenges the audience to think about the kind of strangeness of their own thoughts, in many ways."
As with previous Back to Back productions, "Ganesh" attempts to push strangeness into the realm of the sublime. Drawing on various theatrical genres and antecedents, it suggests a TV domestic drama, wrapped inside a burlesque of Wagner's "Ring Cycle," encased in a Pirandellian play-within-the-play.
"It operates on a kind of family level and then a kind of national level and then this kind of cosmic level," Gladwin said.
The main throughline centers on the Indian deity Ganesh, who's on a time-traveling quest to reclaim the swastika — an ancient and holy Sanskrit symbol of luck and well-being — from the Nazis, who co-opted it to serve their murderous ends. If Ganesh fails, his father, the god Shiva, has threatened to destroy the universe.
Meanwhile, a parallel drama unfolds as the curtain gets pulled back on the show's actors, who are struggling to figure out how to stage such an improbable work as "Ganesh Versus the Third Reich" while keeping their faculties and morals intact.
In his review, New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley wrote that the show "never lets you settle into passive acceptance of anything it does. It's a vital, senses-sharpening tonic for theatergoers who feel they've seen it all."
Holding up a mirror to audience expectations of what theater should be is an artistic imperative of Back to Back.
Founded in 1987 in Geelong, Australia, about an hour south of Melbourne, the company consists of people who (as the company website puts it) are "perceived to have intellectual disabilities" of various stripes. Besides creating unique and challenging theatrical works, Back to Back seeks to help performers with disabilities by creating employment opportunities and to give exposure that could assist them in landing film and television roles as well.
"Our main agenda is really just to make great art," Gladwin said, "and to try and be heroic in our attempt at making theater."
When Back to Back first came together in the mid-1980s, Australia was weathering the effects of de-institutionalization, as people with disabilities were shifted from hospitals and other large institutions into smaller, community-based facilities. Although Back to Back takes care not to generalize about people with such conditions, one of the company's axioms is that Australian society tends to view people with disabilities as the Other.
By embracing that collective identity rather than shunning it, the company has forged an unusual artistic perspective on the work it makes. Its sometimes confrontational productions oblige audiences to consider their own preconceptions about what actors should look like, and how they should behave and speak, as well as about the way concepts such as beauty and "normality" are constructed, both in art and in life.
In "Ganesh," those issues are suggestively related to the Nazis' pseudo-scientific obsessions with "Aryan" ideals of physical perfection and ideological "purity."
"The company does have this kind of outsider aesthetic," Gladwin said. "But it's an interesting thing, because the kind of genre of outsider art is always kind of associated with individual visual artists. So it's this visionary, kind of obsessive, idiosyncratic aesthetic. Theater is a collaborative medium, so on some level even though people bring these kind of idiosyncratic visions of the world to the company, there's still this process, which is a theatrical process, which is reliant on collaboration with a director, other theater artists such as designers. So the vision is a kind of shared vision."
Gladwin said Back to Back also has maintained its outsider perspective by staying in its hometown of Geelong, at a certain distance from Australia's "cultural epicenter."
"You can kind of do what you want and not feel like someone's going to be looking over your shoulder," he said.
Back to Back operates on modest resources, with six ensemble members and a small administrative staff. Nonetheless, the company may not be able to stay under the international cultural radar for much longer. After premiering in Melbourne, "Ganesh" has gone to play in theater festivals in Vienna, London and Rotterdam, the Netherlands, before coming to the United States. The company's touring schedule is filling rapidly.
According to a December story in the Sydney Morning Herald, Cate Blanchett has co-commissioned Back to Back's next work, "Laser Beak Man," inspired by the work of Tim Sharp, a young Brisbane artist who has autism, to make its debut in Sydney this year. Blanchett and her husband are artistic directors of a Sydney theater company, and the Oscar-winning actor performs onstage occasionally herself.
But whatever its future holds, Back to Back likely will keep looking at the world's gods and monsters through the eyes of those standing slightly to one side.
"I think to some degree, for there to be a social commentary, you have to step outside of the institutions that you are commenting on," Gladwin said. "The actors in the company do have that privilege of sitting outside and commenting on institutions."