Our Nazis, Ourselves 

Investigating the Germans behind the Apollo space program

Thursday, Jun 30 2005
Photo by Craig SchwartzIn 2000, Nancy Keystone’s Akhmatova Project showed an ensemble of dancer-performers moving in rigid formation, speaking in overlapping dialogue against projected images, and reciting the words of many Soviet poets — primarily Anna Akhmatova — as Stalin marched them off to the gulag, tortured and sometimes shot them (Akhmatova’s son, for example). The point was to show how the intensity and glory of art become charged by political oppression, and as such orbs go, it was certainly a shiny one. It was also a relentless pounding of one idea, inviting us, collectively and unintentionally, to indulge in self-satisfaction. Oh, that bastard, Stalin. We are so much better over here without the likes of him or his gulags. The cold comfort in Akhmatova was that at least somebody considered artists important enough to kill. Those were the days. Keystone’s latest, Apollo, Part 1: Lebensraum, marks a heartening evolution in her work, closing this week at the Kirk Douglas Theater after years of development by Portland Center Stage in Oregon and locally at A.S.K. Theater Projects and the Center Theater Group. New play development at two of those three institutions — the local ones — has since been shuttered, based on the argument that years of work on any project aren’t worth the investment. In many cases, that may be true, but Apollo proves the opposite. Whereas Akhmatova showshow clashes between art and political power give the art a higher purpose, Apollo shows how clashes between science and political power degrade the higher purpose of science. Akhmatova’s argument was poetical, Apollo’s is moral. Akhmatova spoke from the comfort of a safe harbor about a bygone Soviet era. In Apollo, however, Keystone brings both Stalin and Hitler home to roost. She takes what is literally and inarguably the loftiest American triumph of will power, science and technological know-how — the moon landing — and enters it into a moral equation, bringing it down a notch or two. She demonstrates how Wernher von Braun (Hugo Armstrong) and Arthur Rudolph (Christopher Shaw) — two Nazi German scientists implicated in the use of Buchenwald inmates as slave labor at underground factories developing the V-2 rocket — propelled the American space program. Those famous photos of the American troops liberating concentration camps, horrified by the piles of corpses, were taken at Camp Dora, a Buchenwald sub-camp at which Rudolph ran the camp factory. Shortly after the war, both scientists were granted visas to the United States — Rudolph, with the backing of the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency over the objections of the State Department — in order that the U.S. could effectively compete with the Soviet rocket program, which was also pocketing stray Nazis. There’s an old Hebrew proverb, quoted in the play: “When you need the thief, then you cut him off the gallows.” This folksy slice of realpolitik emerges as the excuse for the land-of-the-free giving safe harbor to Nazi war criminals, and is an ongoing rationalization for a long history of cozying up to tyrants when it suits our purposes. The performance’s first half is a montage of phrases, videos and choreography providing an object lesson in the development of the rocket. The similarity in style to Akhmatova is striking — the physical precision and pristine use of poetry, in language and motion, to make connections, from Germany to the Douglas Aircraft Company and Disneyland in California. Something quite different unfolds in Act 2, when Keystone’s set is suddenly blocked behind a high wall of cardboard boxes containing cremated ashes. Though the wall quickly comes down, those boxes visually punctuate what turns into an inquiry by Eli Rosenbaum (David Heckel) of the Department of Justice’s Office of Special Investigations, summoning old Rudolph, who’s wiling away his closing years planting petunias in California. As it resurrects the ghosts of Rudolph’s horrific past, the play also resurrects Ibsen and Arthur Miller, with their moral indignation at the expediencies of realpolitik. Some critics have complained about the fusion of styles, wishing Keystone had sustained her comparatively whimsical theatrical language without the intrusion of a moral debate. But it’s the moral debate that asks such difficult, probing questions: Who are we, as Americans? What combination of principle and compromise are we really made of? And is it ever really necessary for a democracy to harbor war criminals? The nuances of such questions couldn’t have been addressed through physical theater — which Matthew Bourne has proven can beautifully depict broad fables — or by the blend of text and movement that Theater Movement Bazaar uses so effectively to provoke associations but not to build arguments. Keystone employs courtroom dramatics to build a case that confronts power head-on with a kind of fierce, Jesuit outrage — a style of confrontation she probably learned from Anna Akhmatova. Keystone’s central character isn’t necessarily Rosenbaum, or Rudolph or von Braun. It’s the United States of America, and Apollo’s drama comes from the continental divide between America’s heart and her soul. APOLLO, PART 1: Lebensraum | By NANCY KEYSTONE | Presented by CENTER THEATER GROUP in association with CRITICAL MASS PERFORMANCE GROUP at the KIRK DOUGLAS THEATER, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; through July 3. (213) 628-2772.

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Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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