Theater Review: Mephisto

By Hillel Mittelpunkt; Based on the book by Klaus Mann; Directed by Omri Nitzan Cameri; March 16.

'MEPHISTO’ (photo credit: GERHARD ALON)
(photo credit: GERHARD ALON)
Watching the multilayered, biting Mittelpunkt/ Nitzan production of Mephisto, a famous quote comes to mind: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing.” In other words, we can’t a) sit around like befuddled poultry and let evil grow and/or b) see only what serves our own interests.
We, that is the audience, are “a” and the play indicts all of us. Hendrik Höfgen (Itai Tiran), the hero of Mephisto, stands in for us as “b”. Klaus Mann (1906-1949) based Hendrik on his one-time son-in-law, the actor/manager Gustaf Gründgens (1899-1963), insinuating that the latter collaborated with the Nazis.
“What do they want from me, I’m only an actor,” grumbles Hendrik at the end of the play, refusing even then to recognize that he has sold his soul to the devil to get what and where he wants. Driven, relentlessly ambitious, Henrik will climb over anything and anybody for fame and recognition.
“Politics and theater don’t mix,” he says impatiently to Nicoletta (Helena Yarolova), his lesbian colleague – but they will when Hitler comes to power in 1933, and he’ll let them because he’s unwilling (or unable) to make connections, and that takes him from Hamburg to the National Theater in Berlin, to prominence as its director, to fame for his Mephisto, the role he’s wanted all his life, and to the betrayal of former friends whom he sheds like old skin when they might endanger his future. Like his wife Barbara (Anastasia Fein), his black mistress Juliette (Ruthy Asarsay), his mentor and colleague – they’re Jews – Krug and Beck (Eli Gorenstein and Simha Barbiro), and all the rest.
Roni Toren’s set puts us on a stage of the stage where the entrances and exits are among racks of clothing, racks that will change dramatically for act II, where upstage are curtains and the footlights of the stage’s stage. Keren Granek’s lighting takes us from place to place, mixing light, shadow and darkness. Wagner and Mendelssohn make musical points alongside period music, and Polina Adamov dresses the women (not all) in sexy underwear and deprives the men of their shirts – it’s time for Omri Nitzan to leave his actors’ underwear where it belongs – under clothing. We get the often-made point that underwear reflects vulnerability.
But Mephisto will still stand among his greatest productions because the whole – we’ll get to the acting in a moment – is like a fist to the soul.
“Think” it commands. “Don’t just sit there. Don’t just talk about it. Act. We are striding down the wrong path and it will destroy us.”
“To be an actor is to know how to change masks,” says Hendrik, and Tiran’s achievement in the role is that we don’t believe him as Hendrik because he never lets us see the real Hendrik, except once when the General (alias Herman Goering) verbally flays him to the bone. The phenomenal Dudu Niv plays Goering as the bully he was, reveling in the role and the power the Reich affords him, and Hendrik stands there quivering, the naked nobody he believes himself to be. Onstage, masked by the role, he’s powerful.
No wonder he’s exhausted by play’s end.
Eli Gorenstein magnificently plays three different roles: he’s Krug, manager of the Hamburg theater, Hendrik’s mentor, cynical, warm-hearted and a political realist. He’s Bruckner, Barbara’s stiff-necked, stiff-minded father. He’s von Munk, fanatical Nazi and cleanser of German Culture.
And Gorenstein has different body language, stance and speech for each of them.
Asarsay has gone deep into herself for Juliette and has emerged with her most powerful performance to date, especially the scene in which she urges Hendrik to inform on her.
Yaralova’s lovely Nicoletta is wary, compassionate, and like Krug, a realist. Irit Kaplan too shines in her roles, among them the pathetic Actress and the quietly assured Leidenthal. Simcha Barbiro’s anxious, brave Beck is excellent.
Indeed, the entire cast can pat itself on the back for a job well done.
Ours is still to come, and we’d better get to it.