Photo by Rick Pickman
“The sound of words makes another dimension,” says Mrs. Feuerstein (Maria O’Brien), obviously speaking for playwright Murray Mednick in Mrs. Feuerstein, his final play of a recent trio. (All three plays — the others are 16 Routines and Joe and Betty — were produced this year at 2100 Square Feet, as the opening season of Padua Playwrights Productions.) “There is the dimension of history,” she tells the guidance counselor at the upper-crust American high school at which she teaches. “Like an echo. It is what is meant by text.”
Among other echoes for Mrs. Feuerstein is the memory of her Jewish family’s murder in Poland by local Nazi sympathizers; generations later, she’s an impoverished poet and playwright, and a recent hire teaching creative writing to uninterested American children. Barely scraping by and bearing a fraudulent résumé, Mrs. Feuerstein harbors fantasies of revenge against a pair of German faculty members, Max Wohl (Christopher Allport) and his crippled wife, Freida (Lynnda Ferguson), but particularly against Freida, who, Mrs. Feuerstein believes, was a bemused, champagne-swilling witness to the slaughter of dozens of Jews — including Mrs. F.’s parents — in that Polish village. (Mednick acknowledges having incorporated this idea from Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s 1997 book Hitler’s Willing Executioners.)
Still, if we’re to believe Mrs. Feuerstein (though there’s plenty of reason why we shouldn’t, given her whimsical penchant for baiting people with lies and half-truths), the core of meaning resides not so much in such atrocities as in “the sounds of [the] words” used to describe them — an insight that goes a long way toward explaining the language-centric body of Mednick’s writings, and the sundry theater groups his influence has engendered (most recently Padua Playwrights Productions and Oxblood Theater Company). In a later scene, Mrs. Feuerstein explains to her shrink, Jane (Gwendoline Yeo) — whom, she repeatedly insists, she cannot and will not pay — how “in the old Hebrew, there’s no future, there’s no tense, there is only presence, which is either perfect or imperfect, finished or unfinished, and the saying is an action . . . The words are the meaning.” This idea supplements an earlier tearful lament, to the counselor, that children no longer read: “They have taken away the text . . . I feel sorry for the young, for it will be a world without meaning.”
It makes perfect sense, then, that Feuerstein’s revenge against Freida should be exacted not in the action of the play proper, but as the construct of a play-within-the-play that Mrs. Feuerstein is writing, about a “fictional” Mrs. F. and Freida — a “working something out,” as Jane puts it, toward the essence of revenge, a theme that, extended, manages to ensnare current horrors in the Middle East. Mednick mingles all this into a Genet-like lesbian fantasy between Mrs. F. and Freida that toys with the linkages among eroticism, psychology and power. It also makes sense that Jane should be of Asian descent — far from a mere casting choice, the ethnicity is written into the play — providing the shrink with the appearance, at least, of analytical impartiality toward Mrs. Feuerstein’s anguish, an appearance derived from their cultural divide.
At least half the play, it seems, consists of Feuerstein discussing with Jane the creation of that second play (with a few of its scenes enacted on the stage), or of scenes in which Jane’s shrink (Louis R. Plante) analyzes her interactions with Mrs. Feuerstein. Indeed, Mednick seems far more invested in analysis than he is in action, a dubious theatrical strategy that is salvaged only by the intelligence of the ideas and the terse dramatic rhythms of the words that convey them.
Among the delights of Roxanne Rogers’ staging is the subtlety with which the two plays blur into each other on Jeffrey Atherton’s austere, elegant set of polished hardwood. Then there’s the excellent cast, O’Brien in particular, whose eyes contain a kind of hound-dog sadness. This, in conjunction with her squeaky-kid voice and rim-shot delivery, combines into a riveting mix of textures — a world-weariness that might, at any moment, plunge into despondency but for the occasional flicker of impishness, of an inner kindness that surfaces from beneath her torment. She may not be a disciplinarian with the kids — she’s far too ruminative and self-absorbed for that. Yet in her scenes with Freida, she gets in dig after dig like a bully with no center at all, attacking, withdrawing, reflecting, and attacking again. She’s a remarkable creation, by Mednick and O’Brien, both of whom are clearly — as Jane describes it — “working something out.”
“I am beginning to forget my own text,” laments an Actor (Chris Codol), echoing Mednick’s equation of words with life’s meaning, as he impersonates German playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing in Charles A. Duncombe Jr.’s Frederick of Prussia/George W.’s Dream of Sleep, adapted from Heiner Müller’s prose. “I am a sieve. More and more words fall through,” the Actor continues, describing Lessing’s descent toward a deathlike sleep.
“Soon I shall hear no voice but my own, which asks for forgotten words.”
This Beckett-like lyricism comes on the heels of a brutal portrait of the 18th-century tyrant and militarist Frederick the Great (David E. Frank, a reed in wolf’s clothing), whose soft spot for high culture, including Lessing’s plays, was beaten out of him by his savage father, Frederick-Wilhelm (Richard Grove). (Those childhood tortures included having his son witness the execution of his best friend — just to toughen him up. It worked.)
Müller, in 1976, toyed primarily with the duality of the artist and the soldier — the empathically connected and the disconnected — against a backdrop of historical atrocities. Duncombe takes it a step further (as he did with Müller’s Medea texts last year, at this same venue), serving up our global corporate economy, with its astonishingly efficient technologies for mass marketing and consumption, as the logical extension of Frederick’s military planning. To do this, Duncombe brings Frederick before a U.S. congressional subcommittee, where he wows the senators with utopian free-trade dogma. As the play mixes rants with poetry and bouncy choreographed ditties (e.g., “Fascinating Fascists” set to the tune of “Fascinating Rhythm”), a crowned George W. (Paul M. Rubenstein) sits dozing on a throne-on-high, set against a projected cloudscape backdrop.
The result — under Frederique Michel’s direction, and fueled by devotion to the material — is at once appealing and belabored. Flashes of visual beauty and linguistic playfulness mitigate exasperation with scenes that make their point twice, then thrice, and with dialogue that could have been lifted from the editorial pages of The Nation. Turning doctrine into poetry has been the challenge of playwrights from Odets to Brecht to Edward Bond and, of course, Müller. Duncombe Jr. doesn’t yet meet that challenge, though he’s well on the way.
MRS. FEUERSTEIN | By MURRAY MEDNICK | Presented by PADUA PLAYWRIGHTS PRODUCTIONS at 21OO SQUARE FEET, 5615 San Vicente Blvd. | Through September 23
FREDERICK OF PRUSSIA/GEORGE W’s DREAM OF SLEEP Adapted by CHARLES A. DUNCOMBE JR. from texts by HEINER MÜLLER | At CITY GARAGE, 1340½ Fourth St., Santa Monica Through September 23