Monday, October 21, 2019

GUEST REVIEW 16 (2019-2020): GAMES

"En Garde, Foil, Retreat" **

I am sitting down at my computer. I am typing. Thrust, kerplunk, tap tap tap go the keys!
I pause for a moment to take a sip of my coffee. It is hot, and it penetrates my throat like fire flying through a narrow tunnel. It makes me sweat, but I don’t let it bother me. I am a writer. 
Renita Lewis, Lindsay Ryan. All photos: Hayley Procacci.
Imagine 75 more minutes of similar narration for a glimpse into the experience of seeing Games, at the SoHo Playhouse. Much of Henry Naylor’s script is hokey and oh-so-dramatic, but the story it tells is worthy of the spotlight. Based on true events, the play chronicles the story of a fencer and a high-jumper, both Jewish women in Nazi Germany, vying for a spot in the 1936 Berlin Olympics until the Nuremburg Laws strip them, and all Jews, of their eligibility. 

Portraying the athletes are two actors, Renita Lewis and Lindsay Ryan, who narrate events as they occur, with some dialogue interspersed. It reminds me of the type of project I might have done for extra credit in school when challenged to dramatize the subject we were studying. In fact, I did one, not for the Holocaust but for Hiroshima.

Director Darren Lee Cole’s minimalist approach lays the writing and performances bare. The set consists of only a few screens that the actors stand behind when they characterize anyone but their respective athletes, creating cool silhouettes (design by Carter Ford).

The one-note performances are dramatic to the point of dullness. There is barely a shift from the intense stares you see in the promotional photos. In their defense, the actresses are given the difficult task of bringing life to tedious dialogue. They’re more successful in finding the physicality of their characters, doing a nice job embodying their respective sports. Be prepared, though, for a giant chunk of lines, delivered from a fighter’s stance, repeating “Riposte! Parry!” and other fencing jargon, ad nauseum. 
Lindsay Ryan.
Since the story is the play’s saving grace, let’s get into it. Helene Mayer (Ryan) is a fencing prodigy who wins an Olympic gold medal at 17 in 1928. Crushed by her loss in the 1932 Games, she is desperate to regain her title in the Berlin 1936 Summer Olympics. When the Nazis take power, Jews are banned from participating. 

Meanwhile, Gretel Bergmann (Lewis) follows a similar trajectory. As a world-class track-and-field athlete, she is crushing high-jump records in Europe, left and right.  She is a favorite to snag the gold medal in the 1936 games until the opportunity to compete is ripped from the Jews. 
Renita Lewis.
Thanks to political upheaval, Mayer does get her shot at the gold after all. When the U.S. threatens to boycott the Games because of the treatment of the Jews, Hitler invites Mayer to play for the German team. She is a token Jew, meant to prove that Jews are doing just fine under this regime. 

Through it all, Mayer refuses public commentary. “I am a fencer,” she states stoically, claiming repeatedly that politics have no place in sports. In one harrowing scene, we get a rare glimpse into her head. She comes into the aisle where she must shake Hitler’s hand. In her fantasy, she is crushing his fingers and bringing the dictator to his knees, challenging him to remember her name. 

Unable to overcome the pressure of being the only Jew representing the German team, Mayer is devastated on taking the silver medal (if it were a real sword fight, she says, the person in second place would be dead). She is unable to celebrate that, in the end, it is three Jewish women (the others represent Hungary and Austria) standing on the podium. Instead, as she is awarded her medal, she (infamously, as I later read) gives an enigmatic “Heil, Hitler” salute.

At least Mayer got to compete, says Bergmann, whom Mayer encounters several times over the years. Unlike Mayer, who insists on working and competing alone, Bergmann is outspoken over the disgraceful treatment of non-Aryan races. Ultimately, she flees to New York to clean houses for the wealthy. 

While Lindsay Ryan is the spitting image of photos of Helene Mayer, Renita Lewis is an African-American actress portraying Gretel Bergmann, who was white—a choice perhaps meant, in part, to remind us of Jesse Owens, a famous American high-jumper of color in the 1936 Olympics. Even a black man in America held more status than a Jewish woman in Germany. 

As Bergmann was also portrayed by an African-American actress in  the U.K. production of Games, this is not simply a case of colorblind casting, which is made all the more apparent by some hard-to-watch scenes. When we witness a white child on the street call Bergmann a “shitty Jew,” or see Bergmann as a black woman on her knees scrubbing the floors when she should be competing for championships, the discomfort and horror in our gut serves as a caution that history is repeating itself. 

The production makes no secret that it wants us to pay attention to the parallels between Hitler’s regime and Trump’s administration. Thankfully, it doesn’t hit us over the head with the comparison. The question of how a leader in power defines the master race, and the influence this holds over the nation’s actions and discourse, remains at the forefront.

I’m not sure if it’s to the play’s credit or detriment that I eagerly hit Google after I left to read as much as I could about the extraordinary athletes represented on stage. I learned that Bergmann  eventually received an official apology from Germany, as well as a stadium named after her in Berlin. She broke her vow to never return, in 1999, with a visit to her hometown, but died in Queens at 103, just two years ago. Mayer returned to Germany after the war and continued to compete. She died young of breast cancer, and was inducted into the U.S. Fencing Hall of Fame

In my reading, the more I learned more about these women’s lives, the more robbed I felt of the opportunity to experience their complexity on stage. For example, the criticism Helene Mayer received regarding her loyalties might have been explored. While the play is limited by its narrative structure, there is plenty of time within the hour-long monologues to layer nuance and light into these grim stories.

Games won critical acclaim overseas largely because of its relevance to the issues we are battling now of gender, identity, and race. Still, I like to get my doses of political finger-wagging through more human storytelling.

SoHo Playhouse
15 Vandam St, NYC
Through November 24

Elyse Orecchio studied musical theatre at Emerson College, acting at CUNY Brooklyn College, and English Linguistics & Rhetoric at CUNY Hunter College. She has worked in nonprofit communications for more than a decade. She lives in Sunnyside, Queens, with her husband Joe, kids Theo and Melody, and three cats. @elyseorecchio