"Good German," bad German

A new play is provocative; a classic's latest guise is not
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The title of David Wiltse's 2003 play, The Good German, points in two directions at once: there's the image of the individual who stands up to the injustice being perpetrated by his or her government, and there's the image of the individual who follows the flag, however reluctantly, wherever it may lead. Of the play's four characters, only one looks even remotely like a saint, and she's killed early on. The other three, all of them men, have to negotiate a more twisted path between these two poles.

Wiltse's supple and engrossing drama, now making a stellar West Coast debut at the Marin Theatre Company (and which, incidentally, has no relation to the recent Steven Soderbergh film), takes place entirely in the middle-class home of a middle-aged couple. The flawed but sympathetic Dr. Karl Vogel (Warren David Keith) is a professor of chemistry, and his wife, Gretel (Anne Darragh), is a nurse. Gretel has brought home Herr Braun (Brian Herndon), a German Jew who recently lost his wife and his child when his home was deliberately set ablaze with the intention of sequestering him. Karl is reluctant, being timid and aloof by nature and harboring an all too typical strain of anti-Semitism, which makes him "philosophically" antagonistic to the desperate man at his doorstep.

Karl nonetheless can refuse his beloved wife nothing and allows Braun to stay as a servant even after learning about his Jewish identity. Karl's good friend Siemi (Darren Bridgett), meanwhile, initially appears only too willing to help a stranger in distress. As a member of the Nazi bureaucracy, though, he slowly gives himself over to the organized mass cultivation of hatred sweeping through the country at large. In the end, the bourgeois domesticity all three men cling to — even more so after Gretel's death — is no guard against the spiraling madness of the outside world: sooner or later they have to face a life-and-death decision about who they are and what they stand for. Or rather, what they will and won't stand for.

That choice — their dilemma — is very clearly our own. Wiltse's play deliberately sets itself in Adolf Hitler's Germany in order to address George W. Bush's America. Although this is not the first time the Nazis have served onstage as a mirror to America's totalitarian tendencies (John O'Keefe's brilliant 2002 drama, Times Like These, and Tony Kushner's A Bright Room Called Day are just two examples), The Good German proves exceptionally vital. Confidently helmed by director Kent Nicholson and featuring riveting performances, it's a provocative mediation on questions confronting average — that is to say, flawed — individuals in extraordinary times.

WOYZECK

There is no escape into domesticity for Franz Woyzeck either. Georg Büchner's classic antihero, a lowly 30-year-old soldier beset by the complementary machinery of the military and medical science, finds only mockery and infidelity in the home and hearth he shares with his mistress, Marie, a former prostitute, and their illegitimate child. In his fevered brain a rebellion of sorts, prompted by a blood-red moon, is on slow boil. It's a tragedy of minor and quintessentially modern proportions that is so apt, so portentous, that it has inspired countless productions and adaptations since its unearthing in the late 19th century (including Alban Berg's opera and at least a couple brilliant films) and still amazes one to think it was penned (and left unfinished) in 1836 by a brilliant young chemist and revolutionary carried off by typhus at age 23.

But despite its popularity, Woyzeck is not an easy play to get right. Cutting Ball's current stab impressively conveys the work's jagged protoexpressionist spirit. Artistic director Rob Melrose's able new translation also serves the play's coruscating imagery.

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