At what point does acquiescence in the face of an evil regime become tantamount to complicity in its atrocities?
More than two decades have passed since Ronald Harwood's "Taking Sides" insightfully explored complicated questions of moral accountability raised by Nazi-era Germany, but a gripping revival at Rubicon Theatre makes them seem even more vital today.
Harwood's drama is loosely based on a historical postwar inquiry into accusations of collaboration leveled at Berlin Philharmonic maestro Wilhelm Furtwängler. Considered one of the 20th century's greatest conductors, Furtwängler never joined or publicly supported the Nazi party and even helped Jewish musicians escape to safety — none of which impresses U.S. Army investigator Maj. Steve Arnold (Patrick Vest), who's obsessed with bringing a case against him.
In the play's superbly cast high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse, the affable blue-collar vulgarity of Vest's Arnold (think John Goodman in uniform) belies his steely determination to bring down the target he mockingly dismisses as "the bandleader" — lack of evidence notwithstanding. Simply choosing to remain in Germany with his orchestra was crime enough, Arnold maintains, because in so doing Furtwängler allowed himself to be used as "a commercial for Adolf and all he stood for."
As the dignified, lofty-minded Furtwängler, Peter Van Norden embodies the noble torchbearer of civilization, passionately asserting his allegiance to music and art as a sacred realm that transcends politics and preserves the better angels of human nature.
Compared to the free passes given Furtwängler's artistic colleagues who were far more active in the Third Reich (Herbert Von Karajan was a card-carrying party member), Arnold's investigation seems a textbook case of malicious prosecution, especially when he extorts fabricated testimony from a craven violinist (Adrian Sparks, in a heartbreakingly nuanced capitulation). Fine supporting performances from Cylan Brown, Tara Donovan and Vivien Latham bolster the sense of Furtwängler as persecuted victim. Nevertheless, a potent wordless reveal, involving some photographs, telegraphs the deeper motive for Arnold's crusade.
Director Stephanie A. Coltrin hits the right emotional notes in this charged dialectic, which deftly pivots when Arnold poses the one question that cuts through all the rationalizations and excuses. Regardless of legal distinctions, artists cannot escape moral responsibility for the society that sustains them — not then, not ever, and even inaction is taking a side.
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Where: Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura
When: 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays (with evening talkbacks), 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends Nov. 12
Info: (805) 667-2900 or rubicontheatre.org
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
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