Kicking off its 50th season, Minneapolis' own Guthrie Theater debuted Christopher Hampton's, TALES FROM HOLLYWOOD, a dizzyingly dark and absurdist comedy of the lives and work of Bertolt Brecht, Heinrich and Thomas Mann, and their émigré (or more appropriately-exiled) novelists and screen-writers as they flee Nazi-occupied Europe for Los Angeles. Fascism, capitalism and the role of the writer are at odds as director, Ethan McSweeny, cleverly weaves historical insight into this 'film within a play' staging style, taking audiences on a whirlwind of philosophical discourse and witty banter.
In the story of how writers fleeing Hitler's regime were commissioned by Hollywood movie studios (notably, Warner Brothers), Hampton interweaves a fictionalized manifestation of the Hungarian novelist, Ödön von Horváth, played by Lee Sellars, providing the role of narrator and social commentator on the rise of fascism and the experiences of foreign writers in Hollywood. Of course, the real-life Horváth was tragically killed in a 1938 Paris accident when a tree branch fell on his head. He never made the journey to America. Thus, the brilliance of Hampton's craft lies in the duality created between Horváth as narrator, and Horváth as character, fulfilling his imagined afterlife. That duality, complete with rapid dialect changes and the perfect combination of bewilderment and aversion for American innocence is what awarded Sellars a standing ovation on opening night-and rightfully so. He plays the part with smart sarcasm and the appropriate amount of dark humor.
Equally deserving of praise is Stephen Yoakam's characterization of the disgruntled cigar-smoking novelist, Bertolt Brecht, as he grumbles over the pitiful California sunshine, a flawed capitalist system, and social disenfranchisement. The comedic timing of Yoakam's and Sellars' quibbling is spot on, providing the commentary behind the financial struggles of Heinrich Mann (Keir Dullea) and the inflated, although superficial, literary works of his brother, Thomas Mann (Bob Davis). Not to be left out is the outlandish, yet commanding performance of Allison Daugherty as Nelly Mann, Heinrich's disillusioned wife, who succumbs to her own personal tragedy.
All the while, The cast is silently filmed with their images and dialogue projected on the screen in black and white, creating an 'Old Hollywood' feel and intimately involving the audience in the lives and experiences of the characters. While the screen would seem to distract from the stage, quite the opposite occurs. Character emotions appear amplified, and the subtle cues in facial expressions make the unspoken, at times, more powerful than the dialogue. Ultimately, the play is a retrospective on the human experience and the strife, melancholy and tragedy of exile. History and literature buffs will especially enjoy many of the minor contextual details, adding breadth to the intellectual feel of the production. But, nonetheless, this is a tale of humanity and should appeal to diverse audiences. TALES FROM HOLLYWOOD runs until Oct. 27.
Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow