Monday, October 7, 2019

85 (2019-2020): Review: KINGFISHERS CATCH FIRE (seen October 4, 2019)

“Strange Bedfellows”

Col. Herbert Kappler and Msgr. Hugh O’Flaherty, the subjects of Irish playwright Robin Glendinning’s Kingfishers Catch Fire, now getting its world premiere at the Irish Rep, may not be names that immediately come to mind when you think of World War II. Even after seeing them in this talky, often draggy, but occasionally compelling drama, however, you’re likely to want to know more about them, if only to put the play’s abundant, methodically dosed-out exposition—some of which situates it as a Holocaust drama—into a broader context.
Haskell King, Sean Gormley. All photos: Carol Rosegg.
The stories of Kappler and O’Flaherty are gripping enough to have been previously dramatized. Most notable is the 1983 TV movie, The Scarlet and the Black, starring Gregory Peck as the priest and Christopher Plummer as the Nazi. There’s also God Has No Country, a one-man play by and starring Donal Courtney, given only a few performances. 
Haskell King, Sean Gormley.
There’s too much history involved to unpack in a brief review, so here are the outlines. In 1943, Rome was placed under German occupation, soon after the Italian government established an alliance with the Allies. Kappler, the SS chief of police in Rome, whose responsibilities included rounding up Jews for deportation to Nazi death camps, was in conflict with Msgr. O’Flaherty, the heroic Irish priest from County Kerry who used his Vatican position to rescue Jews and Allied servicemen. In 1944, following the killing by partisans of 33 men under Kappler’s command, the SS officer retaliated by ordering the execution of 335 prisoners in what was called the “Ardeatine Massacre,” for which he was, in 1948, sentenced to lifetime imprisonment in the Gaeta military prison.
Haskell King, Sean Gormley.
Remarkably, however, O’Flaherty began visiting Kappler in prison regularly, and the two developed an unusual bond, one so meaningful to Kappler, in fact, that, for all his religious skepticism, he eventually converted to Catholicism. The play dramatizes two early meetings between these strikingly different men, before Kappler’s conversion. Its time frame also prevents it from mentioning other fascinating aspects of Kappler’s life, such as how, in 1977, when he was dying of cancer, his wife managed to sneak the sickly, 103 lb. man out of prison in a suitcase and take him to West Germany, where he died.
Sean Gormley.
Given Kappler’s wartime deeds, penetrating intelligence, and ethical cynicism, and O’Flaherty’s genial, warm-blooded, sometimes faith-doubting humanity, there’s enough potential in their relationship to create a two-act, hour and 45-minute, discussion drama concerning their imagined conversations. Kappler, played by Haskell King, speaking with just a trace of a German accent, expresses piercing sarcasm layered with anger and vulnerability.

He’s costumed by Linda Fisher in a dark, green, military-type jump suit, but it’s so well-fitted that, along with a torn undershirt slashed to the belly, it seems mainly intended to emphasize the good-looking actor’s sexual appeal. The Irish-accented monsignor, played with wit and soul-searching humility by the dependable Sean Gormley, is garbed in the traditional, long-black robes of a church official.
Haskell King.
Kingfishers Catch Fire, which takes its name from a poem by poet/priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, printed in the program, is set in Kappler’s filthy cell, a dominant feature of Edward Morris’s set being a cruddy, seat-less toilet that would rival the one in Trainspotting for honors in a “worst toilet” competition. Kent Paul’s direction, otherwise excellent, includes a scene when the colonel drops his pants without a by-your-leave to use that receptacle. Even if meant to show Kappler’s disdain for his unwelcome visitor, it seems an unnecessary intrusion (extrusion?), the kind of thing you remember later even when more important moments should be on your mind.
Haskell King, Sean Gormley.
When the play begins, O’Flaherty is trying to get Kappler, preoccupied with physical exercising, to answer basic questions on the conditions of his incarceration. The officer rudely avoids them in favor of engaging in snarky dialogue with his clerical interrogator. As the minutes pass, however, the back and forth begins to elicit who these men are and what has brought them to this pass.

Soon, they’re talking about religious faith, Jesus Christ (whom O’Flaherty says told him to come here), biographical details from each man’s life, a photo given by the priest to Kappler of the prisoner's teenage son, Pope Pius XII’s response to the Jewish problem, O’Flaherty’s unhappiness at being tasked with annulling the unhappy marriages of wealthy Catholics, and the background to the massacre that eventually led to Kappler’s being found guilty of war crimes.

Much time is occupied with the relative justice meted out to the pessimistic Kappler for his deeds in comparison with what happened to others who were involved. There’s also Kappler’s rationalization of how the massacre itself came to be, and a detailed explanation of why the number killed was 335, leading to a stunningly graphic description of the gruesome event itself.
Haskell King.
Kappler’s multipronged guilt—involving the classical dilemma of a military officer’s need to follow orders with which he may not agree—is examined but atrocities committed by the other side are also considered, just as is the blood shed over the centuries in the name of Christianity. O’Flaherty’s vocation is significant, allowing for consideration of God’s responsibility for allowing such things to happen and for Kappler, who claims to favor Greek theology over Christianity, to wrestle with his own atheism. O’Flaherty’s struggle with his faith and his reluctance to proselytize are also on the table.
Sean Gormley, Haskell King.
Rich as the substance of the men’s debate is, it requires close attention to follow its densely packed arguments, often delivered in stiff, unnatural dialogue. It takes an effort to piece together the rhetorical specifics regarding the how, what, and why of the massacre. On the whole, though, the acting is good enough and the circumstances provocative enough to make Kingfishers Catch Fire burn with historical significance, moral relevance, and human feeling.

Irish Repertory Theatre/Scott W. McLucas Studio Theatre
132 W. 22nd St., NYC
Through October 20