As I sit down, I notice the steady stream of people pouring into the Cafe Theater. Mellow chatter ensues, and I stretch out my legs. I showed up 15 minutes early to the performance and figure I would relax. Suddenly, after most settle in their seats, someone enters the room, dressed all in black, and sits among the audience. She has an eerie yet intent look about her, mindful of the surrounding crowd yet focusing on the stage. As I continue to stare, the lights suddenly go off, her silhouette fading into the surrounding darkness. New lights leap up before me. Two women, dressed similarly in that uncanny black attire, appear on stage. After an impassioned dialogue, the first figure questions the other, but in a tone somehow directed at the audience: “Comrade, are you ready?”
From February 14 to February 17, the Trinity University Players performed “Masses and Man,” directed by Alex Oliver. It is a play about social revolution in the early 1900s. Although political in background, the play explores human nature through German expressionism.
The story starts off with a Woman (Lauren Keith) attempting to join a worker’s committee. Despite her initial excitement in pursuing a social utopia, her eagerness wavers when confronted by the Nameless (Kathleen Arbogast). Discontent with the Woman’s notions of a paradise through peace, the Nameless urges for a utopia achieved through violence. The Woman refuses, and prevents acts of violence throughout the story. This leads her into capture by the state. Yet, despite help from both her bourgeois husband and the Nameless, the Woman willingly remains in prison to prevent a warden’s death. Ultimately, the Woman is executed.
In a letter to an early producer, the author Ernst Toller states that his play “can only have a spiritual, never a concrete, reality.” This is the fundamental vision of German expressionism: that objectivity and reality are dictated by inner feelings. This performance captures this sentiment profoundly.
Although I am reluctant to call the play “spiritual,” it did have a metaphysical atmosphere. The performance relies on physical expression to elevate the actors’ presence in the play. The puppet-stringed pantomime of the bankers (Sarah Bastos, Alex Bradley) is executed to an overexaggerated degree. Their movements are uncanny, the puppeteering motions allowing the actors to embody an eerie social reality. But what I found particularly intriguing were the movements of the Nameless. The performance makes her more than a mere frustrated idealist. In her first appearance, she comes down from the stage. Her movements are nimble yet deliberate, swift across rows of chairs like a serpent gliding across still grass, ghastly chants from the other actors rising like an array of tempting hisses, the captivated audience held by her alluring speech of revolution and change. In this, the Nameless transcends the state of actor on stage to embody humanity’s desire for volatile passion.
Naturally, one would wonder whether an expressionist play would lessen the presence of dialogue, favoring physical movement. Fortunately, the execution of the dialogue is superb. The characters are tasked with achieving convincing dialogue to attempt to garner sympathy for their cause from the audience. The passionate, heartwarming and empathetic pleas of the Woman contrast with the inciting, inflamed and rousing appeal of the Nameless. In this thematic and emotional conflict, I could not help but become heavily invested, struggling to either embrace the Woman’s compassionate innocence or empathize with the Nameless’ harrowing frustration.
In other words, the dialogue was not lessened by the expressionism, nor vice-versa. Instead, expression and dialogue flowed together in the play, both helping create a metaphysical, captivating and deep atmosphere.
Personally, I had never seen a German expressionist play before attending this performance. My expectation was that the play would rely on physical expression–rather than substantial dialogue–to tell the story. But after seeing the performance, my perception was thoroughly proven wrong. Although it certainly deviates from the classic play structure, the performance has all the trappings of a traditional tragedy but is further enhanced by profound expressionism and dialogue.