Raucous laughter and awkward silences fill the Public Theater’s Newman Theater during “Ganesh Versus the Third Reich,” a bizarrely compelling show from Australia’s Back to Back Theatre being presented as part of the Under the Radar festival. The guffaws are in reaction to the raw humor displayed by the unusual cast, which consists of five male actors, four of whom have varying degrees of mental disabilities. The performers frankly confront their condition with dark wit and incorporate their observations and emotions into the script. The uncomfortable silences are even more affecting as Dave, the director and the sole “normal” actor, looks directly at the audience and accuses us of attending the play because we want to see the “freaks.” It’s a disturbing moment, one of many in this unique theatrical experience.
The format breaks convention as well as the fourth wall. The main action of the play is the dreamlike journey of the elephant-headed Indian god Ganesh as he treks through Nazi Germany to retrieve the ancient Hindu symbol, the swastika, from Adolf Hitler. Alternating with fantastical scenes of the deity’s quest are debates among the cast on the nature of acting, theater, the blurring of reality and illusion, and the use of power and myth.
Dave pushes emotionally closed-off Brian, who wrote the play and portrays Ganesh, to tap into his feelings, while persnickety Scott complains about everything from the way he must pretend to die when his character is shot to the potentially offensive use of Holocaust images in Brian’s script. Occasionally, these “real” sequences go on a bit too long, but they effectively and hauntingly comment on the Ganesh vignettes, such as the horrifying moment when the half-animal Ganesh is examined by the sadistic Dr. Mengele (played by Dave), who explains that he is fascinated by “abnormalities.” When we realize he could be talking about the other members of the company, it’s bone-chilling.
Bruce Gladwin, who is credited as director, devisor, and designer, provides smooth transitions between the two realities, with the aid of Andrew Livingston and Bluebottle’s painterly lighting. Luke Ryan, as Dave, carefully balances compassion for his disabled cast mates with frustration and rage at them. The four mentally challenged actors— Mark Deans, Simon Laherty, Scott Price, and Brian Tilley—fill their roles with warmth, humor, and a refreshing lack of self-consciousness.
“Ganesh” is hard to look at and raises many disturbing questions, but that’s what challenging theater is supposed to do.
Presented by and at the Public Theater as part of Under the Radar, 425 Lafayette St., NYC. Jan. 9–14. (212) 967-7555 or www.publictheater.org.
Critic’s Grade: A