By Michael Frayn
Directed by Jim Petosa
Produced by Olney Theatre Center
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
On one level Michael Frayn’s 2003 play Democracy is a political shocker. The intrigue and revelations that iron-lock our attention to the Olney Theatre Center’s new mainstage are quiet and intellectual. What starts as an intellectual chess game becomes a game against destiny. On another level, director Jim Petosa allows this superbly crafted play to become good, solid entertainment.
The play is about the paradoxes of history. It’s 1969 and Willy Brandt (Andrew Long), the hero in this play, ascends to power as the West German Chancellor, assisted by a select inner circle. Brandt, an illegitimate child, a young Social Democrat and once a spy against the Nazi regime, became the charismatic world leader who, in a famous moment, fell to his knees in contrition at the Warsaw War Memorial for murdered ghetto Jews. In 1971, Brandt won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts at reconciling the Free World with East Germany, Poland and the Soviet Union. Then in 1974, his closest personal assistant, Gunter Guillaume,a relative nobody, is exposed as an East German Communist spy who brings about the fall of the great man.
As in his play Copenhagen, a 2004 hit at Olney Theatre, Frayn puts real life historical events in the present tense and fills in the gaps with imagined human interactions. In Democracy, Frayn raises questions not only about the course of history and our power to change it, but also about why Brandt chose to resign.
Guillaume (Jefrrey Thaiss), the underling and central character, narrates his own downfall as he retells and relives life in divided Germany with his co-conspirator Arno Kretschmann (James Slaughter). Guillaume is loyal to two masters: He owes an allegiance to Mischa, the iron-fisted leader of the Stasi. At the same time, he develops a genuine love for Brandt
It is Thaiss’ ever-changing, chameleon-like performance that carries the play. Thaiss in conflict is a totally charming mental acrobat, a pleasure to watch, both in the action and out. Through Frayn’s Brechtian-style dialogue, past and present are fused. The actor is both emotionally involved and detached, speaking one second to a past-life character in a scene; the next directly to the audience.
Through Guillaume’s memory, we get a clearer picture of Brandt, the visionary, who reshaped a Cold War generation. When Guillaume first enters, Thaiss plays him boyishly serving Brandt with the rapt adoration of a novice priest for a pope. But in the second act, as pressures grow, he’s howling like a wolf on the floor, in anguish over his duplicity and inevitable betrayal.
Long has adopted Brandt’s gestures and quirks spot-on, but holds in check the enflaming passion of a charismatic crowd pleaser. With commanding presence, Long has a breath-defying moment when he delivers one of Brandt’s eloquent silences. Brandt’s timed silence speaks volumes in front of an East German audience, under the watch of security forces ready to crush any protest. “Calm down. Patience. The time will come,” Brandt says with a gentle hand gesture.
Overall, Long gives a phenomenally compelling performance, as a conflicted man of compassion, who, to survive, wore many masks until the corruption around him depleted him.
Frayn’s writing and Petosa’s production leave the question of Brandt’s resignation open ended but suggest succession is secure so let the flow of history happen. Ever present in cabinet meetings stands statuesque Helmut Schmidt (Vincent Clark), ready to take over. If the East wants to know what’s going on that badly, let them spy. From Long’s performance, we get the exhausted dignity but not quite the full anguish of defeat.
And herein lies another paradox: the East Germans miss him afterwards.
Throughout the play, distrust is mutual on both sides and even among colleagues on the same side. Even Herbert Wehner (misspelled in the program), one of Brandt’s colleagues, distrusted democracy with bitterness. “The more of it you dare, the tighter the grip you have to keep on it.” Played with biting sarcasm by Hugh Nees, Wehner is the power broker who reportedly convinced Brandt to resign and negotiated the paid-for releases of political prisoners, a thriving industry that kept the Eastern block solvent.
So how do you explain the mysterious trust between the two main characters? Why doesn’t Brandt, who says he distrusts his personal assistant, put the finger on Guillaume sooner? That’s for the audience to decide. Most definitely, Petosa’s direction implies that the personal breakdown between Guillaume and Brandt becomes allegory for a divided Germany and for the fall of the wall. (Credit sound designer Jarett C. Pisani).
Guillaume’s divided self is divided Germany. The last image in the play reinforces the acceptance of reality. Guillaume and Brandt in separate spotlights face and reflect each other in an emotionally stirring moment. Now they are one.
Olney Artistic Director Jim Petosa directs a well-cast ensemble of experienced players for this Washington area premiere, and has a skilled eye for lighting and well-balanced staging. The grey-suited all-male ensemble keep the brisk, well crafted dialogue flowing.
The stage set designed by James Kronzer has built Esher-like staircases that seem to go nowhere in opposite direction and serve as emphasis points for Brandt’s entrances and exits. The stage set is as split as the personalities of the main characters. One half is dominated by gray cinderblock stonework, regimented windows, formal interior that connotes regimented central government that could be any intimidating building for bureaucrats. The other half looks filtered through mist. Pale moss green walls with scattered windows here and there, suggest isolated individualism, representative of the 60 million West Germans, “all out for themselves and all totally dependent on everyone else.”.
Quick silver lighting changes, designed by Daniel MacLean Wagner accompany the political maneuvering. The use of red lighting spills is dazzling in the chase pursuit of Guillaume and his ultimate surrender.
Willy Brandt had the good sense to not stand in the way of the flow of history. Even though Brandt resigns and regrets it afterwards, his policies remain until 1989 when the Berlin Wall falls.
(Running time: 2:35 plus 1 intermission) Democracy continues Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m., matinees on Wed., Sat, and Sun., 2 p.m., at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, Maryland 20832. Free parking. Tickets: $25-$46, with discounts for groups, seniors and students. Box Office: 301-924-3400; go to http://www.olneytheatre.org/