American Century Theater Stalag 17By Mark Lee Adams • Apr 9th, 2010 • Category: Reviews
American Century Theater
Gunston Arts Center, Arlington, VA
Through April 17th
Reviewed March 31, 2010
The American Century Theater tackles this drama with an attempt to bring us, the audience, into the play with them. It’s a bold attempt with landmines all over it. Audiences differ each and every night and this production must go with the flow of the audience of any given night. A doting task when you’re asking the audience to be part of a reality they have little to no connection with. The connections the audience members do have of a prisoner of war camp will vary. This variance will be anywhere from real life memories to the Billy Wilder adapted movie to visions, all who’ve studied World War II, may have of both POW and Concentration Camps in Germany. Maybe it would’ve been better to have gone for a more traditional approach. This would have given strength to the ensemble acting required in a production like this.
OK. You walk into The American Century Theater’s black box theatre and you see the inside of a POW barrack with the actors asleep. Excuse me, who was on watch? Anybody? Bueller?! Bueller?! Anybody? This play has a set, designed by Anndi Daleske, which has no basis in the reality of a POW Camp. The two tiered bunk beds are neatly placed lengthwise against the wall. My memories of all the pictures of POW barracks have the bunk-beds perpendicular to the wall so as to have a better use of the space for more prisoners. This set gave me the feeling of a summer camp setting. Maybe the set designed in Daleske’s design provided more space for the actors to perform, but if so, why didn’t the actors use all the space provided to them? All it created was a chasm between the actors and the audience.
The costuming was designed by Rip Claassen. Rip has, for the most part, adorned the prisoners of Stalag 17 in the proper WWII US Army uniforms. I might question the pristinely clean white undergarments the actors wore. The play speaks of no showers for months, so one might wonder, “How DO they keep their undies so clean?”. One may also wonder how some of the prisoners were wearing dress shoes instead of boots. But all in all the costumes were consistent with the time period and well done.
The stage combative scenes directed by Casey Kaleba didn’t work for me at all. It was clear when one prisoner was getting whipped, that the whip didn’t come within two feet of the supposed whipped. Either that or the Captain had it out for the table. I’m not asking for real blood, but a piece of balsa wood on the actors back, which could easily be taken off during the following scene where the fallen prisoner, masked to the audience by his fellow prisoners so the actor could apply the blood makeup on his face would’ve done the trick very nicely. The fight scene during the blanket party for Sefton (maybe it wasn’t suppose to be a traditional blanket party) was not within the reality we were given to believe. Sefton could’ve taken any one of his assailants, save for Stosh. This was an opportunity for the cruelty under a confined situation that was missed.
The stage play is a living breathing wonderfully magical evening or matinee with a life of its own. This play is a story of the lives of prisoners of war during WWII in a place with a name that is recognizable even today. Sure, not everyone will know all of the stories of this Stalag, but a lot do remember the movie. If you don’t remember the movie, we all know or have an idea of what life must’ve been like in a POW camp. Fortunately most of us don’t have direct knowledge of this kind of confinement. But Stalag 17 did have some amenities. (If you can call them amenities). There were books to read and a phonograph to share with the other barracks. The food was horrid and not much of it (so why did an actor clean his socks in the soup and then feed it to his fellow prison mates?) Also, if a production’s goal is to bring the audience back to the time period of the real Stalag 17, it’s almost imperative to make sure the actors look like they haven’t washed their hair in months. These actors, save a few, had freshly coiffed heads of hair. Not just neatly cut but cleaned and blown dry. This is hardly a replication of what it must’ve been like (anyone can Google ‘Stalag 17’ and see the pictures of Stalag 17 and the men of Stalag 17 and what their hair was like after months of no bathing).
The acting in this production was varied. Some wonderful performances were given the night I saw this show. John Stange in the role of Stosh gave us a wonderful performance. His focus to detail was sharp in every moment and with his character’s bunkmate, Harry Shapiro expertly played by Donald L. Osborne, the two actors displayed a very believable chemistry as friends brought together by very unfortunate circumstances. Special note is given to Hans Dettmar in the role of Corporal Shultz. His performance displayed his command of his character and he was able to bring the audience away from any preconceived notion of his character to the reality of this play with apparent ease. Very well done Hans. In fact, all the actors playing German soldiers: Hans Dettmar, Karl Bittner in the role of the S.S. Captain and Matthew Meixler gave us an unsettling edge of the torturous regime they were playing. Some other sparks of reality and a real nice performance were given by James Finley in the role of Dunbar, Hoffman played by Bill Gordon and in the role of Reed played by Steve Lebens. Too bad we couldn’t have seen more of them. Marko, played by Jay Hardee, gave a spark of life to the show for the few times he was on stage, but I felt Marko was a little too campy at times. Price, played by Jon Townson, gave an ok performance but missed too many opportunities for nuance and a sense of cold blooded ruthlessness his character imbues. Tony Bullock plays the role of Sefton in this production. His portrayal was not what I expected from this character. I’m not sure if this is a directorial note or not, but the glibness of his Sefton seemed out of place. Too many times he turned his back to the audience when speaking and spoke with such a quiet voice at times I didn’t know what he was saying. He also had a smile on his face to entire show. I know this is a black box theatre, but really?! This note of quietness can be given out to many. The reading of a heartfelt letter from home was so softly delivered, the actors on stage couldn’t react to it.
All in all this was an ensemble play without ensemble acting. Some really nice moments by those actors I’ve mentioned, but all too many of those moments weren’t enough to hold this play up. One last comment: at the end of this play, there was no yelling outside the barracks where Price is used as a decoy and the excitement of those left in the barracks when they realize Sefton and Dunbar’s escape was successful needs to be on the faces of all. I mean, was Stosh the only happy one in the barracks?
Stalag 17…When most people her that phrase, they either have no idea what it means or they think of the famous 1953 Billy wilder movie. But for people of an earlier generation, it is immediately recognized as the name of a German POW camp, and, for a select few, the words bring back horrendous memories of the very specific time an place when they were at the mercy of their fellow human being….but were given none.
Both Wilder’s film and the play by Donald Bevan and Edward Trzcinski use humor to offset violence, anger, and treachery. That Bevan and Trzcinski were able to write about their experience and find a way, not only to laugh about it but to make others laugh, is a testament to the power that this play must have had when it first premiered. Since then, it has been overshadowed by the famous movie. Put aside the celluloid memory and see this story as it was originally meant to be seen – on the stage.
William Aitken, Director
Photos by Dennis Deloria.
- S.S. Captain: Karl Bittner
- Stosh: John Stange
- Harry Shapiro: Donald L. Osbourne
- Price: Jon Townsend
- Herb Gordon: Tom Eisman
- Hoffman (Hoffy): Bill Gordon
- Sefton: Tony Bullock
- Duke: Gabriel J. Swee
- McCarthy, S.S. Guard: Matthew Meixler
- Horney: David Olmsted
- Marko: Jay Hardee
- Corporal Shultz: Hans Dettmar
- Dunbar: James Finley
- Reed: Steve Lebens
- Geneva Man: James Svatko
- Producing Director: Sherri Perper
- Director: William Aitken
- Stage Manager: Bob Pierce
- Assistant Stage Managers: Rachel Loose, Jim Vincent, Larissa Norris
- Set Design: Anndi Daleske
- Technical Director/Master Carpenter: Jameson Shroyer
- Costume Design: Rip Claassen
- Lighting Design: Cheryl Ann Gnerlich
- Sound Design: Ian Armstrong
- Properties Design: Ceci Albert
- Fight Choreography: Casey Kaleba
- Fight Captain: Jon Townson
- Sound Board Operator: Jim Callery
- Wardrobe Mistress: Jessica Branch
- Program Design and Cover Art: Michael Sherman
- Production Photography: Dennis Deloria
- Marketing: Lesley Irminger, Jessica D’Arcy (intern)
- Dramaturgy Intern: Erin Shannahan
- Development Intern: Kristen Northrop
- Archivist: Kim-Scott Miller
Disclaimer: American Century Theater provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/4866.
Mark Lee Adams has been involved in theatre for over 40 years in the local Washington DC Metro area as well as NYC and London England. Mark has performed at the Dramatist Guild Theatre on Broadway, at The Dorothy Strelsin Theatre Off-Broadway. His credits include work in many local theatres as well: The Folger Theatre Group, Arena Stage, New Playwrights Theatre, 7th Street Players, The Keegan Theatre, The American Century Theatre, The Journeyman Theatre, ASTA Theatre, The Hayloft Dinner Theatre (Associate Producer), The Lazy Susan Theatre, Discovery Channels, "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" (Frankenstein) with Donald Sutherland. London, England credits include work at: The Duke of York Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre, The Questors Theatre, The British Embassy Players. Mark is a graduate of The Drama Studio, London, England. Mark is also a narrator of audio books for Gildan Audio: “True North”, by Bill George; “Never Give Up”, by Tedy Bruschi and “Five Minds for the Future”, by Howard Gardner among them. Mark currently teaches Advanced Acting at The Little Theatre of Alexandria and still performs locally in many theatres.