Guilty or Not Guilty: The Case for History’s Bad Guys

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

Spy Garbo
3LD Art & Technology Center
80 Greenwich St.
New York, N.Y.

In Spy Garbo, history’s notorious villains Francisco Franco, dictator of Spain, British spy and Soviet doubly agent Kim Philby, and Wilhelm Canaris, head of the German Abwehr during World War II, chat with each other in a huge, sterile “library limbo,” awaiting the arrival of a spy named Garbo. The spy will deliver crates of tapes, photos and documents that will exonerate the trio, turning them into heroes, all in the wave of an historic magical wand.  As they wait, they try to convince the audience that history has given them a raw deal.  If only Garbo would arrive, they wail, hands raised and voices pleading, they would instantly be turned into good guys.

They are wrong.

Franco, Philby and Canaris were not heroes.  They were scoundrels.  The longer they take to explain their case, the deeper they dig their historical graves.

The playwright, Sheila Schwartz, dug her grave, too, in this listless spy drama.  The three evildoers are the only actors in the play.  They work as if they are in three one-man shows running simultaneously. There is no play here, just a lot of rambling dialogue.  If there were Olympic medals for lengthy talking, these there would share the gold.

The play is unique, though, because of its multi-visual set. The drama is staged at the fabulous, sleek 3LD Arts & Technology Center’s theater with a three-sided wrap around movie screen upon which hundreds of historical films and still photographs are projected, all supposedly enriching the story.  The idea is that the play takes place within the movie.  It is a double dose of history, but the problem is that it doesn’t work.

The tragedy is that writer Schwartz has done a spectacular job of presenting a historically accurate play.  History lovers will admire Schwartz and her work.  She has meticulously researched her three characters and the people they interacted with during World War II, especially Hitler and Stalin.  She has, through the story and the films of protestors and battles, recreated a slice of World War II for her audience.

Her point is that it does not matter what Spy Garbo says; these three deserve history’s condemnation.  The three offer pretty weak defenses.  Franco argues that, well, he might have been a bad guy, but he was not as bad as Hitler.  He repeatedly tells the audience that he was the youngest European general since Napoleon, as if that comparison should earn him a medal.  Philby claims he saw communism as superior to capitalism. The only really decent defense is offered by the tall, impressive Canaris.  He at least was part of two plots to assassinate Hitler and worked for the Allies at the same time he ran the Nazi intelligence division.

You do learn much about the lives of the three men and World War II.  The playwright paints a rather complete picture of the trio’s stories and fits them into the 1930s and ‘40s rather neatly.  The problem is that there no real play here, just a verbal carnival.  They are also an odd set of characters for the play.  I would have preferred to have stumbled into the library limbo and met Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini.  Now there are three crazy defenses I’d love to hear.

About halfway through the play I gave up on it, closed my eyes and hoped that Canaris, Franco and Philby would leave the stage and be replaced by Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton and Douglas MacArthur.  Then, at least, we’d have some people to applaud.

Director Kevin Cunningham just cannot get out of the ropes he is tied under by the playwright, who gives him just three men and a bad movie.  The actors, to be fair, are pretty good.  Steven Hauck is sophisticated as Canaris, Chad Hoeppner is engaging as Philby and Steven Rattazzi is a durable Franco.  As for the special effects, a number of people worked on the multi-visual presentation, but it just didn’t work.  The endless movies and slides amount to an episode of the History Channel without a plot.

Spy Garbo needs a better story, a lot more James Bond and a lot less Kim Philby.

PRODUCTION: Produced by 3-Legged Dog and the Affinity Company Theater. Producers: Aaron Louis, Diane Morrison and Karina Martins, Video Designers: Aaron Harrow, Jeff Morey and Peter Norman, Sets: Neal Wilkinson, Costumes: Clint Ramos, Lighting: Laura Mroczkowski, Sound: Marcelo Anez. Director: Kevin Cunningham.

comments powered by Disqus