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Questions of Conscience

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s stunning Los Angeles premiere of Ronald Harwood’s “Taking Sides,” a post-World War II inquiry into charges of Nazi collaboration against celebrated conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler appears to be an open-and-shut case--one of persecuting an innocent man.

Although he remained in Germany and continued to lead the Berlin Philharmonic throughout much of the war, Furtwangler never joined the Nazi Party, avoided lending any public support to Hitler’s regime and quietly intervened to help scores of Jewish musicians flee the country.

It therefore seems like the height of prosecutorial abuse when crude, hotheaded Maj. Steve Arnold (Sam Anderson) launches a determined effort to indict this glorified “bandleader,” despite the absence of any incriminating evidence. In his zeal, Arnold even enlists a weak-willed violinist (Tony Goodstone) to help him manufacture a case.

Hauling the dignified, eloquent Furtwangler (Leland Crooke) into Arnold’s makeshift office in the ruins of occupied Berlin, the major subjects his victim to increasingly hostile and invasive interrogations that offend even his aide (Roy Abramsohn), a thoughtful, fair-minded Jewish lieutenant. The moral tightropes extend to the superb supporting performances from Diana Cignoni as Arnold’s reluctantly obedient German secretary and Nichole Pelerine as a passionate supporter of the beleaguered conductor, who round out a flawless cast.

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To all but Arnold, Crooke’s Furtwangler mounts a persuasive defense, casting himself as a defender of the intellectual life of his people against a tyrannical ideology, and asserting his conviction that art must be kept separate from politics.

Why, he asks quite reasonably, was he prevented from working while his colleague Herbert Von Karajan, a card-carrying member of the Nazi Party, had already been allowed to resume his career?

But Harwood is far too skillful a playwright to settle for easy answers. Despite Arnold’s abrasive personality and loathsome tactics, he slowly but surely begins to rattle Furtwangler with troubling questions about the benefits his refusal to leave the country rendered the Nazi propaganda machine, whether intentionally or not. In an impeccably executed denouement, Furtwangler confronts his own monumental naivete.

Gripping and thought-provoking, Ron Sossi’s masterfully nuanced staging (which includes a brilliantly utilized film segment of Furtwangler conducting before an audience of appreciative Nazis) evokes a full measure of emotional complexity, no matter what intellectual stance you take on the issues raised.

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At a time when the distinction is too easily overlooked, Harwood’s extraordinarily well-crafted play reminds us that criminal liability and moral accountability are not the same.

BE THERE

“Taking Sides,” Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Aug. 13 and 27, 2 p.m. Ends Sept. 10. $19.50-$23.50 (Pay what you can, Aug. 10 and 20, Sept. 8). (310) 477-2055. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.


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