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Off-Broadway Review

Mengelberg and Mahler

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Mengelberg and Mahler
The idea behind "Mengelberg and Mahler," Daniel Klein's solo drama currently playing at Shakespeare & Company in the Berkshires, is a potentially fascinating one. The title characters are Willem Mengelberg, the conductor of Amsterdam's famed Concertgebouw orchestra, and Gustav Mahler, the legendary composer whose works Mengelberg championed. The relationship between the two artists and friends is complex and rich. Mengelberg was determined to present the passionate symphonies of the Jewish Mahler, who died in 1911, even during the Nazi occupation of Holland. But the conductor was under pressure to remove Jewish musicians from his orchestra, and he succumbed. Three of the banned orchestra members perished in the death camps. After World War II, Mengelberg was sentenced to exile in Switzerland for collaborating with the Germans. Klein's play takes place in the banished maestro's isolated mountain retreat as he engages in one-sided dialogues with the long-gone Mahler and re-enacts his trial before the Dutch Council for Honor in the Arts and his encounters with the Nazi arts commissioner.

There is much that could be explored here: the responsibility of the artist in war, the crushing curse of anti-Semitism, the transcendence of music above politics. But Klein offers a surface skimming of these issues and fails to convey the horror of war-torn Europe and the conductor's desperate need to practice his art in his homeland. The main trouble is that one vital character—Mahler—is missing from the scene. It would have been more interesting if the composer had been a fully realized if ghostly presence on stage, perhaps a figure in Mengelberg's imagination. At least then there would have been a stronger conflict, with an opposing player to bounce arguments against.

Any actor taking on a 90-minute one-man play is to be commended for courage, and Robert Lohbauer certainly has that quality. But he doesn't appear to have a firm grip on the character and doesn't convince us that Mengelberg's dilemmas—placating the Germans, then being tried for treason by the Dutch—are literally matters of life and death. Lohbauer's best moments are lightly amused critiques of the thickheadedness of Mengelberg's countrymen. And Emile Fallaux's pedestrian staging doesn't serve Lohbauer well. One of the most potentially affecting scenes has Mengelberg trying to buy a ticket to the Nazi-sanctioned all-Jewish orchestra, featuring several of his former players, but as a gentile, he is forbidden to enter. Fallaux has Lohbauer play this crucial moment, when the maestro realizes that his private world of music has been irreparably corroded by the Germans' barbarism, with his back to the audience.

It's telling that the only sublime moments are provided by recordings of Mahler's heavenly music and Lohbauer's silent ecstatic reactions as he conducts. We could get the same effect by attending a concert.

Presented by and at Shakespeare & Company, 70 Kemble St., Lenox, Mass. June 12–Sept. 10. Schedule varies. (413) 637-3353 or www.shakespeareandcompany.org.

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