Orchestral Maneuvers

Taking Sides explores the artist's complicity in Nazi Germany's politics

For Maj. Steve Arnold, recently arrived in postwar Germany, prosecuting Nazi sympathizers, collaborators and full-on finks isn't just a job. The longer he stays, the greater the American's disgust as he interviews allegedly innocent musicians of the Third Reich-cleared Berlin Philharmonic. The most elusive prey is, of course, the top dog: conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. "The maestro's creed is politics and art kept separate," insists deferential second violinist Helmuth Rode during his interview. And down-and-out widow Tamara Sachs has mixed feelings about Furtwängler as well. He helped her husband, a gifted Jewish pianist, escape. Or did he?

In Ronald Harwood's intriguing but talky Taking Sides, the moral compass spins like a weathervane in a gale. Was Furtwängler Hitler's tool or an indifferent bystander? Did he refuse to salute der Fhrer, or did he pander to his every whim? And what about Maj. Arnold, an unapologetic philistine who claims, more than once, that he is "totally uncultured"? What gives him the right to assess the activities of a world-renowned conductor, especially one whose activities weren't quite as blatant as those of, say, Leni Riefenstahl? (Titles of Furtwängler biographies express alpha and omega views on the maestro, from The Devil's Music Master to Trial of Strength.)

At the Jewish Community Center, director Tom Murray has assembled a production that plays up all the claustrophobia of a prolonged interrogation. Unfortunately, too frequently Taking Sides veers into stock melodrama. This seems to be a problem inherent in the script, which is never content to make a claim and develop a point of view without constantly referring to the original claim -- good jurisprudence but occasionally numbing theater, especially in the very long second act. Even there, however, details about Herbert von Karajan's conducting philosophy vs. Furtwängler's -- "discipline vs. inspiration" -- are fascinating and make one want to listen to competing recordings (snippets are played in the play).

David S. Brink and Garrett Bergfeld in Taking Sides.
David S. Brink and Garrett Bergfeld in Taking Sides.
David S. Brink and Garrett Bergfeld in Taking Sides.
David S. Brink and Garrett Bergfeld in Taking Sides.

Details

Performed by the New Jewish Theatre Through Feb. 18. Call 314-432-5700, ext. 3175.
The Jewish Community Center, Lindbergh Boulevard and Schuetz Road

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As Maj. Arnold, David S. Brink is the slangy can-do American, although his affect seems too calculated early on. Dramatic tension could have built more effectively if Harwood hadn't made his character announce at the beginning, "I've seen things with these eyes," a line Olivier might have choked on. Arnold is basically one man against a parade of petitioners, but he meets his match with Furtwängler. Played by a taut yet weary Garrett Bergfeld, Furtwängler literally towers over his adversary (and therefore plays most of his scenes sitting down). Bergfeld strikes the right note of arrogance, especially when Furtwängler's real secrets, which mostly have to do with the vanity and callousness of genius, emerge. John A. Dalton plays Lt. David Wills, who's supposed to assist Maj. Arnold but ends up playing devil's advocate. He's Jewish but is more than willing to forgive Furtwängler's alleged transgressions because "he is like any other great artist." The scenes between Wills and Arnold could have benefited from sharper timing and fewer smoldering looks of disagreement, and the audience could have benefited from not knowing Wills' perspective so soon.

Special praise goes to Lavonne Byers and Bob Koerner as the bedraggled Tamara and Helmuth. Byers puts real delicacy and nuance in a stock part -- a woman over the verge of hysteria. When the Americans serve her coffee with cream and sugar, Byers' eyes light up and her shoulders straighten. This small epiphany makes the audience suddenly wonder how many years it has been since this sad soul even smelled real coffee. Koerner's Helmuth is simply a jewel: apologizing, ingratiating and, in the end, collaborating -- with the Americans. Fine work also comes from young Melissa Hogan, who plays Maj. Adams' German stenographer with appropriate cringing and wincing. Chris Anich's set, a magnificently bombed-out office surrounded by brick heaps, occupies the central portion of the very small playing space (just four rows of seats on three sides) of the auditorium.


When Stars on Ice started in 1986, founding member Scott Hamilton had a wall of medals and trophies, none of which provided much comfort after two frustrating years in the Ice Capades. "There were plenty of days I'd be pushing through a number, landing a triple Lutz, only to hear a bunch of Cub Scouts and Brownies talking and laughing through my performance," he writes in his memoir, Landing It. "The children cared more about the kiddie acts than watching me skate."

With no kiddie acts, no cartoon costumes and a constellation of champions, Stars on Ice -- which played the Savvis Center last week -- showcases world-class skating, pure and simple, and you talk to a seatmate at your peril. And much has improved since the days when the stars themselves occasionally loaded equipment. For some time now, they've used their own rock-arena-style lighting rig, which can bathe the ice in any color, and a variety of traveling spots (including large red Target-style bull's-eyes, which perhaps pay homage to the show's current sponsor). The result enhances rather than distracts, and choreographers Sandra Bezic and Michael Seibert, with lighting designer John Broderick, smartly integrate effects with skating.

What's fun about this show -- Hamilton's farewell tour -- is seeing a different side of some well-known performers, which undoubtedly provides a delectable artistic challenge for the skaters. If you've seen 1992 Olympian Kristi Yamaguchi's authority in spins and swoops, her gonzo clownish side may surprise you. She wore a spangly cowgirl outfit for a Dixie Chicks medley and swaggered -- no easy feat on skates. Newcomer Yuka Sato showed finesse with her turns and control in the adagio ballad "Take My Hand," though she needn't shimmy her shoulders to establish the "female skater must be cute" cliché. And Tara Lipinski ("her incredible, amazing youngedness," in Hamilton's words) was at her finest wearing a candy-pink leotard and short circle skirt in her duo with Ilia Kulik. Accompanied by the Jazz Messengers' classic "Moanin'," these two were relaxed and convincing, insouciant with nary a leap, striking '50s-cool-cat poses.

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