Anyone Else Disappointed by “Ganesh vs. the Third Reich”?

Brian Tilley in "Ganesh vs. the Third Reich"

Brian Tilley in “Ganesh vs. the Third Reich”

So I think I’m out of the mainstream on this, because Back to Back‘s Ganesh vs. the Third Reich is one of the buzziest shows at Under the Radar this year, and it’s been praised to high heaven everywhere it’s played, but honestly, I left the theater with pretty mixed feelings that have metastasized into general disappointment. It’s one of those shows that isn’t awful by any means, but it also doesn’t accomplish what I think it wants to accomplish, and I’ve been struggling ever since I saw it to put my finger on why. And the answer, I think, is that it doesn’t trust its audience.

For those unfamiliar with the show or company, Back to Back is an Australian company founded over twenty years ago for performers perceived to have a disability. The ensemble devised Ganesh along with director Bruce Gladwin. The show itself a meta-play: four ensemble members–(Mark Deans, Simon Laherty, Scott Price, and Brian Tilley) are joined by actor Luke Ryan, who plays a director helping them stage a play by Tilley called Ganesh vs. the Third Reich, in which the Hindu god Ganesh is sent to earth to reclaim the sacred symbol the Nazis have claimed as their own: the swastika. So the performance is really an exploration of the issues of representation raised by the work done by a company like Back to Back and the expectations of the audience, through the lens of the issues raised in the play-within-a-play. Ryan is the only artist onstage who is not disabled (in fact, he spends enough time shirtless and in shorts to make clear he’d be a good example of Hitler’s master race–based on audience reactions, I doubt Ryan will be having much trouble finding local company in NYC), which stands in stark contrast to the others. Ryan’s character is essentially a condescending liberal, well-intentioned perhaps but ultimately dismissive of the very valid concerns raised by the artists about the work they’re presenting.

The problem is that from the beginning, with Nazism having been introduced as a metaphor in the play, you’re basically waiting for the shit to hit the fan and the chauvinistic violence to explode. Which, predictably, it does. Having spent the first hour of the play doing a relatively fine job of introducing very complex tensions into the show, for some reason the play stops dancing too close to actually stating its metaphors and chooses to inhabit them all at once in a climax rife with incredibly heavy-handed irony. Eventually Ryan can’t take it anymore–his inability to compel people he doesn’t really take seriously to do what he wants–and explodes in violence on a very thin pretext. But what’s really baffling to me, and what I can’t sort out still, is why the show suddenly becomes so theatrical at this point.

Up until this point, the metanarrative has been pared down, with almost all the theatrical elements of the production reserved for the staging of the play-within-the-play and initiated by the performers themselves. The company will talk about a scene, and then go about setting it (most of the design is done through plastic curtains and is quite beautiful and imaginative, particularly the train scene) and kicking it off themselves. True, no one onstage operates the lights or sound cues, but they’re always motivated and confined to the play-within-the-play. But when Ryan descends into violence, suddenly a loud raging rock track kicks in. So the “real” world they’ve created onstage is rendered completely fictive. Which makes it anything but shocking when Ryan commits an act of violence. Having placed such an intense focus on issues of representation–on what it means to stage something in a particular way–we’re all hyper-aware at just that moment of the theatricality of the device. So…what is the point of the end?

I honestly don’t know. The show takes a sharp turn into a heavy-handed presentation of everything of what was previously the source of all the dramatic tension. Long after we’ve come to understand that despite being differently-abled these are sophisticated, compelling artists on par with anyone else at the festival, all of a sudden they’re being abused and demeaned in the sort of blunt plot twists you’d expect from an after-school special. I really am utterly lost as to why the play went the way it did.

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