Many of the elements that make up “Ganesh Versus the Third Reich,” the internationally acclaimed offering from the Australian company Back to Back Theatre, will be familiar to theatergoers of an avant-garde bent.
There’s the mixing of Eastern and Western iconography. There’s the metatheatrical high jinks in which a good portion of the show is about the making of the show. And then there’s the old standby, the close scrutiny of ever shifting power relations.
But it’s unlikely that you will have ever seen anything quite like this production, which is being presented by the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse through Sunday. Sentences likes this in a review can set up expectations that you’re about to be dazzled by superlative stagecraft and spectacle. This is not Back to Back’s style, though the tableaux on occasion can indeed be quite entrancing.
This is a company that wows its audience with human simplicity — bodies of different shapes and sizes, voices that can be extremely difficult to decipher and a design scheme that, even at its most lyrical, feels very much handcrafted.
The theater has become a place where actors are expected to be paragons of proficiency, roaming the stage in full command of their physical instrument. According to Hamlet, the theater should hold the mirror up to nature. Well, increasingly, nature is looking like it has a gym trainer, a cosmetic surgeon and a life coach.
Here, all but one of the actors who make up the five-person ensemble are perceived to be intellectually disabled. Back to Back’s mission, as a program note spells out, is to create “new forms of contemporary theater imagined from the minds and experiences of a unique ensemble of actors with a disability, giving a voice to the social and political issues that speak to all people.”
Directed, devised and designed by Bruce Gladwin (Kate Sulan is credited as the show director for this leg of the tour), “Ganesh Versus the Third Reich” tells a captivating tale of the Indian deity with the elephant head who, to prevent his father from destroying the earth, descends from the heavens to reclaim “the ancient Sanskrit symbol” of the swastika from the corrupting clutches of the Nazis.
But enfolded in this epic adventure is the story of a company of actors with disabilities rehearsing a play that’s set in a period when those marked as different or defective were being exterminated in concentration camps.
The four actors with disabilities — Simon Laherty, Mark Deans, Scott Price and Brian Tilley — switch between their onstage and “off-stage” roles. Tilley, who plays the writer of the script, dons a magnificent elephant mask in his portrayal of Ganesh. Laherty and Deans are initially cast as Jews on the run from the Nazis. Price’s character is the troublemaker of the company, raising questions about the authenticity of the production and arguing that Deans should be removed because he “doesn’t understand what is fiction and what is not.”
The line here is purposefully fuzzy. The play within the play is described by Tilley as a “story about power,” and these power dynamics are reflected (in a less lethal way) in the drama that ensues over the staging of this work.
Luke Ryan, whose lean sculpted physique and mellifluous diction provide a stark contrast to his fellow cast members, plays David, the increasingly exasperated director. When Price refuses to follow orders during his death scene, David (who acts the part of the diabolical Dr. Mengele, among other roles) completely loses his patience. Violence breaks out, and for a moment it becomes a war between the seemingly normal and the seemingly disabled.
What’s impressive about the piece, however, isn’t the clever way it thematically layers its tale. The production doesn’t approach the sophistication of “Marat/Sade,” Peter Weiss’ flamboyantly innovative play about a power struggle in an asylum that was subsequently turned into a film by Peter Brook. “Ganesh” has simpler aspirations. Yet it nonetheless achieves moments of great profundity in the encounters it sets up between performers and between the actors and audience members, who are at one point indirectly accused of coming out for “freak porn.”
What does it mean to oppress? By what authority does one group get to impose its will on another? What responsibility do people have to one another? Is there any wisdom surpassing compassion?
These are mighty questions that “Ganesh,” a small but rippling production, leaves you pondering. It’s a piece in which a hug, proffered by the wispy Laherty to a fellow performer after a brutal scene, turns into an eloquent statement about what it means to be a human being.
‘Ganesh Versus the Third Reich’
Where: Freud Playhouse, UCLA, Westwood
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday.
Contact: https://www.cap.ucla.edu or (310) 825-2101
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes