THEATER REVIEW: One-man play re-examines role of art in an age of horrors

“Mengelberg and Mahler”

By Daniel Klein

Shakespeare & Company

Lenox, Mass.

THE HUMMING ALLITERATION of “Mengelberg and Mahler” is pleasant, but the title is not going to send mobs of theater-goers racing to the box office. Pity, because the play is 90 minutes of absorbing, amusing, life-examining theater, and the playcraft is well-honed, having been through a film iteration before coming to the stage.

Willem Mengelberg conducted his highly respected orchestra, the Concertgebouw, for decades before the Nazis arrived. In Klein’s play, he is frequently cranky, calling his Dutch audiences “brainless” and “tone-deaf.” He disparages Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun” but programs it in a spot on his concert to offset “the grown-up music,” the German music. And there are some funny moments when he heaps sarcasm on his competitor, America’s darling-on-the-podium, Arturo Toscanini.

But it’s a play for thinking.

Mengelberg’s life was soaked in Mahler, and the Nazis, who occupied the Netherlands from 1940 to 1945, objected to “a Jewish composer.” They also objected to Jewish musicians in the orchestra. Oh, maestro, could you please place all your Jewish musicians at the back of the stage so that we won’t have to look at them! Oh, Maestro, you must remove them. “Yes, I must adjust,” agreed Mengelberg. He regrets their loss–mainly, it seems, for musical reasons.

After the Nazis were vanquished, Mengelberg was exiled from the Netherlands for collaboration. The play revolves around this conflict, the personal pain, the excuses, the arguments both self-serving and convincing, much of it in conversations with Mahler.The cast is Shakespeare & Company’s Robert Lohbauer. Just Lohbauer–unless one includes Mahler speaking from the ether, an imagined Nazi Reichskommissar, and imagined judges, who have decided on the conductor’s bitter exile. Although Lohbauer could benefit from a few conducting lessons, he otherwise lives utterly in Mengelberg’s mind and body, shifting smoothly in time and space, and performing homely, quotidian actions with unconscious simplicity. For example, there is the actor’s nanosecond appreciation of the wine after a distracted sip; his rubbing of salve on a tired leg (conductors spend a lot of time on their legs); his hands stroking a crucial letter, etc.

Images are projected on the back wall of the theater. Most of them merely distract from our attention to the actor. But there are two key moments where they become effective foreground: 1) Mengelberg addresses the image of his lost harpist. He has dismissed her with the rest of the Jews. She inspired him, he misses her, he says. And then her image disappears from the wall; 2) music- and image-moments (thank you director and/or author) end the play. To preserve your experience, I will not describe them.

Does one have to be a Mahler-lover to surrender to this play? Absolutely not. But I defy you to resist the lush sensuality of the composer’s love theme from his Fourth Symphony or to stay aloof from the final image and…. well, never mind.

After the war, everyone was a resistance fighter, Mengelberg complains. The familiar moral dilemma posed by the play does not gut-wrench the audience the way some holocaust plays and films do. It does not intend to. It exposes the conductor’s daily humanness. It resurrects the question of what you and I, audience members, would do if tested.

The play asks. Again.

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