What We’re Seeing: The Bridge Production Group’s “George Kaplan”
“An electrifying, inquisitive explosion of anarchic comedy, conspiracy theory, and striking design that lives with you long after you leave the theater.”
(The cast of “George Kaplan” / Photo credit Nancy Fallon)
What can I tell you about George Kaplan that doesn’t spoil this delectable thriller?
George Kaplan the character may be the fictional spy in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, but George Kaplan the play is an electrifying, inquisitive explosion of anarchic comedy, conspiracy theory, and striking design that lives with you long after you leave the theater. A play rife with nondescript, and therefore chameleonic, political intrigue that translates across geo-political borders, Frédéric Sonntag’s George Kaplan is an exploration into the relationship between reality and fiction, interested in raising some dizzying impositions on the personal identity vs. communal security debate. Through razor-sharp writing, design, and direction, the play flirts relentlessly with the nature of identity, toying with Lockean memory theories of personal identity and tinkering with Nolan-ized timeline tussles in a perfect balm for anyone’s recent 1899 itch for juicy, mysterious characters in fluctuating settings of passion and upheaval.
George Kaplan was first produced in Copenhagen in 2013, and since then has become an international phenomenon translated into a dozen languages, receiving countless readings and at least fifteen full productions throughout Europe and North and Latin America. This lends a meta level to this play about a worldwide anonymous network of “George Kaplans;” through the interest in the play and the ensuing translations, publications, and productions, the project itself can almost be said to have actually come into fruition, with the myth of George Kaplan being spread, thus participating in its own meta future development. This George Kaplan network of licensed productions along its development path has connected it so far from Barcelona to Copenhagen to Belgrade, then spread to other languages and countries including Germany, the U.K., Slovenia, Italy, Russia, and more recently, the U.S..
And making the leap here is no easy feat to brush off as anything less than heroic. For my American readers, I want to briefly magnify how European playwrights are encouraged to write from a place that invites theatrical collaboration as central to the theatrical endeavor, an enviable luxury in place of writing from a scarcity mindset of “producability” that permeates American playwriting. In broad strokes, I have often been challenged by my global colleagues that a central difference in continental approaches stems from European theater-making valuing aesthetics in service of dramaturgical subtext, as opposed to aesthetics in service of the literal text. This difference manifests itself in a more stylized and surrealistic execution across design and performances, as well as relying on intellectualized trust in audience perceptions, instead of, well, spoon-feeding living room realism over and over again (cough, the American canon, cough cough). These ingredients for the delicious mixing of metaphor and design thus blend perfectly with The Bridge Production Group’s mission in NYC to thrive on “restructuring and reimagining classic text, utilizing and highlighting design as a core narrative component, and blurring genre and tone.”
With deceptively playful, relentless jabs at every turn led by director Max Hunter, this NYC premiere of George Kaplan is a delectably sticky, chewy SourPatch treat; First it’s sour. Then it’s sweet. Then it’s gone. Much more than a brilliant exercise in style, this strange play flawlessly maintains a ubiquitous unease of off-kilter, risky playfulness that thrives in liminal space, luxuriating in moments of mental and physical teetering on the brink of collapse. A rollercoaster thriller for the audience that is as funny as it is captivating, the English translation by Samuel Buggeln illuminates a wild, nonlinear world we glimpse in three distinct scenes that live inside a more abstracted, shared universe. Hunter constructs a technical, textual, and visual sandbox with auteur acumen, commanding seamless collaboration between designer and performer all around.
Creating an immediately arresting view, scenic and prop design by Thomas Jenkeleit muddles an unnerving incel vibe of strategically littered Americana strewn about the cement basement stage, juxtaposed against the harsh inquisition of neon framework that pierces a heightened awareness of the actor-audience proximity at the tiny New Ohio Theatre. The venue, in Hunter’s own words, “brings the perfect intimacy to the actor-audience relationship, allowing our viewers a voyeuristic seat outside a play space that itself is under surveillance through an array of multimedia and recording devices.” The intimacy in question is exacerbated by an amalgamation of simply inspired design by the aforementioned Jenkeleit, lighting design by Conor Mulligan, costume design by Avery Reed, and multimedia and sound design by Andrew Freeburg. Jenkeleit’s neon framework subtly mirrors the act of voyeurism and consumption more literally seen via two chunky television sets that end up contributing the show’s most breathtaking moments of storytelling prowess. The visuals of the play are stunning in both tableaus and the silences between, rendering the production a true edge-of-your-seat triumph in design-meets-story that makes an arresting case for the thrill of live theatre trickery.
Adorned in Reed’s Matrix-meets-Madame Secretary, sensibly slick costume plot, the group of strangers thrown together in a potpourri of perceived power play permutations of the same characters across three scenarios. The rockstar cast of five carry bold, charismatic performances to the finish line with a well-rehearsed wind-up of eerie, animatronic precision. While each of them plays an intense game of wits tennis, always moving the ball and one-upping each other with varying quirk, assertion, and deflection, actor Christina Toth (SEE YOU, Candlelight) remains one of the most mesmerizing, chameleonic actors to watch on stage today, adding an intoxicating presence through her character’s authoritarian, contrarian control over a range of heated scenarios. The ragtag assembly of un-named colleagues in three different pressure cooker scenarios even reminded me of the gang of emotions in Inside Out, each portraying a vital yet varied riff on how to handle one central theme (except here the theme is communal solidarity vs. personal identity) (and the Fifth Estate).
Hunter’s pacing aids the cast through this 5G, rapid and razor sharp system of overlapping wits and nerves that tangle and lacerate until each of them is equally frenetic, pathetic anti-heroes. The cast’s choices are a masterclass in subtle brashness; they dance the line between fervor and curiosity with a breathless elegance, twistedly enviable in their ability to transfer innocence across timelines. Just as they decry and mock the idea of a deep state puppeteer, no single one of them emerges as a true ringleader; and it’s precisely in this individual malleability that we find mass culpability. While there can be discussion about powers that be that are paying for and listening to their every move, you won’t find a singular “man-behind-the-curtain” reveal in this thriller. Only the stunned second of silence at the end of the show before rapturous applause.
Besides the more pragmatic considerations that already merit this a show worth licensing around the world (a reasonable number of characters, a rather simple set design, themes strongly rooted in contemporary issues, including forms of paranoia, anonymous figures, conspiracy theories, international espionage, storytelling, etc.), in Sonntag’s own words:
“George Kaplan speaks about stories, myths, narratives and their political ramifications, asking the question of what stories we can tell today, and how we tell them, with respect to dominant narratives. So in a sense it raises the question of theater, its relationship to fiction, its implications with regard to other forms of mass narrative, which is certainly an issue that goes beyond the borders of language and culture: what stories are we still able to tell today? What counter-fiction can we propose today to the kind of fiction that is plaguing us from all sides?”
Run to The Bridge Production Group’s production to find out for yourself.
THE BRIDGE PRODUCTION GROUP presents
Written by Frédéric Sonntag
Translated by Samuel Buggeln
Directed by Max Hunter
Cast features Christina Toth, Elisha Lawson, Max Samuels, Campbell Symes, and Michael DeFilippis.
Creative team features lighting design by Conor Mulligan, costume design by Avery Reed, scenic and prop design by Thomas Jenkeleit, multimedia and sound design by Andrew Freeburg, assistant direction and dramaturgy by Dante de Blasio, and stage management by Melanie Ashby.
“George Kaplan” runs Nov. 15 – Dec. 3, at New Ohio Theatre (154 Christopher Street, New York, NY 10014). The performance runs approximately 75 minutes with no intermission. For more information visit https://newohiotheatre.org/programs/new-ohio-hosts/george-kaplan/.
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