August 22, 2008

Whose side will you choose?
by Greg Boyle

For many years when theatre patrons thought of high quality professional theatre in Kansas City, they thought of touring shows, or Kansas City Rep, or the Unicorn. Those venues had created their niches and become stable entities over time.

It’s time for them to move over and make room for another member of the local pantheon. In the fourth year of its existence, Actors Theatre KC has shown that it must to be thought of in the same light as those others. One triumph after another has marked the Actors Theater KC’s 2008-09 season.

Major Steve Arnold (Mark Robbins) is the interrogator “slob-everyman” in Taking Sides.

The latest offering is Taking Sides, a story about the de-Nazification process in Germany immediately after World War II. The play is based on real events, and the character under investigation, Wilhelm Furtwangler, was in fact the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic in the years before, during and after the Nazi debacle. His role in supporting and glorifying that regime is what is under question.

While that synopsis doesn’t sound like there’s a whole lotta yuks, the play is marvelously constructed by author Ronald Harwood, with light moments and laughter generously intermixed with the drama. That’s what makes it so moving.

Gary Holcombe plays the part of the conductor. His Furtwangler is a man used to the finest things that life has to offer, but most of all, respect Furtwangler’s character is attacked by Maj. Steve Arnold, the army’s investigating officer, by methodically withholding respect. Arnold was chosen for the job because he is a man who is exactly the opposite of the great artist.

Arnold is a complete philistine, without an artistic bone in his body. Mark Robbins plays him as an American slob-everyman, almost channeling Jim Belushi. (I swear I have never seen Robbins’ belly hang over his belt before.)

Arnold is coarse where Furtwangler is refined; he is familiar where the conductor is formal; he is conversational where the artist wants to make written statements. In ordinary life, neither would ever choose to have anything to do with the other. Furtwangler would look down on Arnold’s type as uncouth; Arnold would despise the conductor as being a hypocritical snob. They are opposite sides of a coin but one side has all the power.

Wilhelm Furtwangler being interrogated by Major Steve Arnold (Mark Robbins) in Taking Sides.

The larger issues addressed in the play have resonance in every period of history. In spite of all the areas of mankind’s great advancements, the artful use of power has not kept pace. Power still corrupts; and absolute power still corrupts absolutely. Where does a person draw the line in dealing with a regime that goes over the line of appropriate behavior? How does a person resist the monstrous overuse of power without risking his own life? Isn’t survival the primal instinct? How are we to judge those who must make impossible choices? Can we put ourselves in their shoes? Should we judge them by standards that we cannot be sure we would be able to adhere to ourselves?

We have seen in the last eight years in our own country how power has been used in ways that America has never done before. How have we reacted as individuals? What would we do if that power became so totally pervasive that it controlled every aspect of our lives every minute of every day?

The converse of that question is also posed in the play. How do you deal with the people who have benefited from the monster regime even though not playing a direct role? Are they as guilty as the perpetrators? And exactly how far does one go in extirpating the evil? Can one righteously become like the demon being exorcised without becoming a devil himself?

The performances in the play are excellent, as we have come to expect from this troupe. Nathan Darrow gives the play a conscience as the young officer; Elana Kepner gives it pathos as the young widow; Vanessa Severo gives us the point of view of the average German as the secretary; Michael Linsley Rapport gives us the obsequiousness and malleability of the weak and conquered. His character is played brilliantly, and is a reflection of what most people would do if presented with such overwhelming circumstances.

But it is the interaction of the two main characters that is the engine that makes the play go. Holcombe’s Furtwangler is proud, slightly arrogant but cooperative in a stereotypically German aloof way. Is he a good man or a quisling collaborator? There is evidence on both sides. The jury must decide.

Mark Robbins, though, is the “straw that stirs the drink”. He is nothing short of magnificent in his portrayal of a man who has seen too much, and who is dedicated to making life miserable for those he believes contributed to what he has seen. His offhandedness breaks the tension time after time, and is a spectacular counterpoint to the personalities of the rest of the characters. The result is a stunning evening of theatre that you will carry home with you.

Actors Theatre KC doesn’t have a permanent home. This show is being performed at the City Stage Theatre at Union Station. It is an intimate setting, with every seat in the audience comfortable, with ample leg room, and receiving full exposure to every flinch and nuance that the performers breathe into their roles.

Taking Sides is performed until Aug. 31. For more information, visit

Greg Boyle can be contacted at


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