“And yet late at night, every night, I find myself asking: Can a false story be so good that it does something true? Or are we just telling lies that will travel down the decades until we’re in a future built on those lies?” (Helen, from the play)
We live in an era of increasing fakes, not object forgeries, but misrepresented facts and even people. The practice is not new. It used to be called propaganda or criminal impersonation. Tools to create credible falsities were nowhere near so available or proficient as they are now.
Zachary James (Karl)
Greenwich Village 1936. Joris Ivens (believable Andrew Burnap) is called in by “the Office of the Branch of International Cultural Socialist Whatever Whatever –the KGB.” A frustrated American filmmaker, he’s let Russia bankroll a few short pieces in exchange for adhering to suggested subjects. “Yes, they sort of specialize in middle of the night secret assassinations but…” The young man is naïve.
His “handler” Karl (Zachary James – excellent, unnerving), most often seen silhouetted in shadows accompanied by emphatic Noir music, wants Joris to make a film about Spain (during the Spanish Civil War). “But I’ve never been to Spain!” the director protests. “The War in Spain is … the noble peasant crushed by the rich fascist. See? A Single-Sentence War. Easy,” comes the reply. Lack of choice is implicit. What the hay. This movie can be a full two hours and “what’s not to like about Spain?”
Marin Ireland (Helen)
Joris’ assigned girlfriend Helen (Marin Ireland, intriguing every minute), also a filmmaker, is savvy about those with whom they’re involved and why. Having been approached in Moscow as an exchange student, she’s in it for the money, the art and, in this case, chemistry. The couple parry about what’s real. Do they even know each other’s given names? Can they morally justify what’s to be done as an opportunity to create?
Erik Lochtefeld (Dos Passos)
A list of what the two know about Spain – tapas, bullfights, guitars, salsa…is as innocent as it gets. Helen suggests hiring John Dos Passos (Erik Lochtefeld – solid acting, even looks like the writer) to write the screenplay. Joris is in favor of Ernest Hemingway (Danny Wolohan – very unlike the author and a weak link). Both are asked. They do not get along. Dos Passos hears from a friend in Spain that the place is crawling with Russians. Helen changes the subject. When his friend goes missing, however, the writer can’t be dissuaded from pursuing answers. The group flies to Spain.
Helen is warned they’re becoming expendable because – wait for it – there are too many films and no one is watching! “Radical brain surgery doesn’t work when you’re presented with a buffet…It works when everyone around you is receiving one set of ideas,” Karl tells them. Additionally, he (Russia) doesn’t believe art can change ideas. (A point to argue.)There’s another way.
Danny Wolohan (Hemingway), Andrew Burnap (Joris)
While interaction works well, clandestine comings and goings muddle. Nor is it clear that an intrusive parenthesis featuring a singing Spanish peasant (Zachary James – glorious vocal) is part of the eventual film. Director Tyne Rafaeli is good with character, heavy handed with effects.
As far as I’m concerned, there are six actors in this play, five on two feet and music/sound (Daniel Fluger) that’s so ominous and omnipresent it’s integral to every moment. Evocation of menace is marvelous, but the scale is such that we anticipate water boarding or mass murder. Likely not a note need be changed were it taken down a notch.
Karl? We never know.
Scenic design by Dane Laffrey is extremely artful, closing us in on all sides, utilizing hidden doors and a turntable emerging from shadow. Sinister meetings are indicated by Jen Schreiver’s terrific, sharp-edged lighting. Costume design (Alejo Vietti) is just as one might picture were the piece being read.
Ivens is based on a real director whose film The Spanish Earth, in support of democratically elected Republicans, exacted widespread interest from the Left. John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway did write the screenplay. It was narrated by Orson Welles. Financing was unclear, propaganda, in hindsight, obvious.
Photos by Matthew Murphy
Opening: Marin Ireland (Helen), Andrew Burnap (Joris)
Spain by Jen Silverman
Directed by Tyne Rafaeli
Tony Kiser Theater
305 West 43rd Street