Event theater has arrived on Grand Boulevard, and I'm not referring to the return of the Phantom at the Fox. Halfway down the block at the more modest Kranzberg Arts Center, Upstream Theater is presenting the stunning U.S. premiere of Helver's Night, a taut two-character drama from Poland that is both harrowing and thrilling. Upstream artistic director Philip Boehm has pulled off another triumph by adapting and brilliantly directing this gripping parable about misfits in a totalitarian society.
Helver's Night is a night of conflagration. Offstage we hear the crackling of enflamed buildings and the menacing chants of mobs that as they wreak their hostilities on the disenfranchised. We see banners that feature a logo reminiscent of the Nazi swastika. The parallel to 1930s Germany is implicit, but this locale is unspecified, for playwright Ingmar Villqist is warning us that all extremists resort to violence when the public discourse is allowed to become too shrill.
Helver, an excitable youth who has been part of the mob, soon returns home from the riots. (The very walls are caving in on his modest abode.) He boasts to his guardian, Karla, about the mayhem in which he has participated. Dressed rather like an extravagant Boy Scout, Helver is in thrall to an unseen superior officer named Gilbert, who has impressed upon him the tenet that "the main thing is order. Wherever you are, you have to have order." When Helver in turn seeks to impose that same kind of order on Karla, she angrily responds, "Let go of me, you imbecile." Her pejorative is more literal than we initially realized: Helver is a simpleton.
As the intermissionless story plays out to its provocative yet inevitable climax in which the hunters become the hunted, we learn more about the relationship between Helver and Karla. He is a motherless child; she is a childless mother, whose own daughter was institutionalized. Karla is as wise as Helver is guileless: She understands that in a world where the weak can be purged, there is no room for Helver and his ilk. "What am I gonna do with you?" Helver asks of Karla, but the play's real question is the contrary: What is Karla going to do to protect Helver? In a less hostile time, someone might have said, "Suffer the little children to come to me." But in this volatile world, Karla's priority is to ensure that the hollow-headed Helver does not suffer.
This Polish morality play delivers the most immediate and relatable kind of theater. For here in the States, where uncivility increasingly chokes the body politic, it speaks with a jarring directness. It also feels fresh and involving because Boehm's dialogue is free of that stilted quality that often hampers translations. These are roles that actors can sink their teeth into, and they are beautifully performed. As Karla, Linda Kennedy gently reminds us that she is still one of the pre-eminent actresses in St. Louis. In a wrenching yet understated portrayal, her Karla is as worn down as a pair of beloved bedroom slippers. Her weary face is etched with resignation; her very demeanor is a study in calm. In the midst of this maelstrom, it is Kennedy's stillness to which our eyes return, in search of comfort that ultimately Karla is unable to give.
By contrast, Christopher Harris' Helver is all adrenaline. His constantly spinning hands have a life separate from his scattered mind and tumbling words. Harris begins the play on a high — which then becomes a jumping-off point from which to leap higher still. Adorned in his beret and rucksack, he gives a tortured face to mindless madness. You dare not breathe when Harris is onstage, and he is almost never off. Together, in an evening of unforgettable theater, Kennedy and Harris make time stand still for 80 minutes.
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