Reviewed by Lee Shepherd
Taking Sides, which opened Friday night (Sept. 30) at the Chenango River Theatre, is the perfect vehicle to showcase the supreme acting talents of Jim Wicker and James Wetzel. Portraying, respectively, world-renowned Berlin Philharmonic conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler and his post-World War II U.S. Army interrogator Major Arnold, the two are locked in mortal combat. You can’t take your eyes away from the carnage.
A provocative 1995 Holocaust drama by Ronald Harwood, the chillingly witty play is a fictionalized account based on Furtwangler’s diaries of a real-life investigation. The audience is cast as judge and jury to Furtwangler’s alleged complicity with the Nazis. Your convictions flip-flop as more and more evidence comes to light. As the title implies, Taking Sides forces audience members to choose.
The big question is: Did the conductor use his exalted position as “Hitler’s conductor” to help dozens of Jews escape, or did he enhance Hitler’s power and prestige worldwide by conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in Germany and abroad?
There isn’t a slow moment in the play, nor a weak member of the cast. From beginning to end, you forget they’re actors, the mark of a good script but, more so, of consummate acting ability.
The scene is set by Wetzel, returning to his role 18 years after CRT Artistic Director Bill Lelbach first staged the show at the Shadowland Theatre in Ellenville. His Major Arnold, an insurance fraud investigator back home, performs his job with the tenacity of a wild dog of Africa, slowly ripping the skin off his prey. He helped liberated the camp at Belsen-Bergen and dogmatically seeks a conviction.
Recording secretary Emmi Straube, played by Amy Crossman, and Lt. David Wills, played by Zachary Chastain, are blinded by Furtwangler’s fame and reputation. They push us to find Furtwangler pure of heart — but it isn’t so simple. Crossman and Chastain give great depth to their roles, although the playwright hasn’t given their parts the multi-layered complexity of Arnold and Furtwangler.
Opportunist second violinist Helmut Rode, ably played by Bret Jaspers, is more weak than evil. He admits he got his prestigious post with the Berlin Philharmonic because talented Jews were fired from the orchestra. He turns Nazi mole in the orchestra and is more than happy to turn on Furtwangler to save his own skin. Jaspers is convincingly obsequious and detestable.
(An aside — thanks to the playwright for Rode’s line “In my humble opinion as a second violinist …” This veteran second violinist will use it from now on, just before saying something obnoxiously opinionated.)
A heart-wrenching performance by Amoreena Wade as Tamara Sachs brings to light what so many lost during the war. She lost the love of her life, her health, her sanity. As the widow of a musician helped to escape by Furtwangler, she delivers the testimonies of dozens more. One hopes Wade’s fine debut with CRT leads to many more good roles with the company.
Enter Furtwangler, toweringly tall, dignified, charismatic, a figure of supreme authority, every bit as godlike as Hitler must have appeared to the German people who elected him before his Satanic side emerged. Wicker is memorable in this complicated role, painfully confronting his relationship with the Nazis in his quest to preserve music as a politics-free vehicle for goodness.
If you’re looking for light entertainment, go to a Disney movie. If you want to be intellectually challenged by a few of life’s huge philosophical questions – can art and music simply be a window to a world imbued with justice, beauty and compassion or must it be prostituted to politics? are people ever totally evil or all good? — don’t miss Taking Sides.
IF YOU GO: Taking Sides runs plays 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 16 at Chenango River Theatre, 991 State Route 12, Greene. For tickets, call 656-8499. or visit www.chenangorivertheatre.org.
Sunday (Oct. 2) is a name-your-price performance; there will be a post-show talkback Oct. 7 with the cast and director.