Not long ago I had the opportunity to sit down with playwright William Missouri Downs.
It turned out to be among the most memorable interviews I’ve ever conducted because Downs sat there and told the truth for 45 minutes. All I had to do was write it down.
And in a welcome alignment of the planets, my conversation with Downs took place only a couple of weeks before I saw Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
Downs had all sorts of things to say about playwriting and the state of theater. And he had this to say about audiences — and, by inference, theater producers who pander to them.
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“Theater is becoming safe,” he said. “We go to watch ‘Addams Family the Musical’ because we already know how it ends. We go to see ‘Romeo and Juliet’ for the fifth time. We see ‘Death of a Salesman’ and already know it. Audiences want safety. They treat theater the same way they do a Honda: ‘If I’m gonna spend money I want to know what I’m gonna get.’ ”
That’s not always true, of course. The Unicorn Theatre has extended the world premiere of Downs’ “How to Steal a Picasso,” a farce with something to say about the commercialization of art. The show was originally scheduled to close Sunday but, due to demand, will continue through Feb. 21. The evidence suggests that there are, indeed, theatergoers in Kansas City who don’t want the same-old-same-old. The Unicorn’s policy, in fact, is to produce only shows never before produced in Kansas City.
Consider the Rep’s current production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Now don’t get me wrong. It’s a respectable production. Director Marissa Wolf put together a gifted cast. Some of the performances are outstanding.
But it’s a story everyone knows.
The play was based on a famous diary kept by a Jewish teenager in hiding in Amsterdam before she and other family members were discovered by the Nazis and deported to concentration camps. Published in 1947, three years after the war, the book became and remains a household title. It’s in school libraries.
The play remains among the 20 most-produced full-length dramas in high schools, according to the Educational Theatre Association. The respectable George Stevens 1959 film version is out there for us to watch on DVD. So is a 2009 British version filmed for Masterpiece.
So when the Rep, the city’s leading nonprofit theater company, chooses to devote its formidable resources to a ubiquitous title, one could reasonably wonder: “Yes, but aren’t there other shows they could do?”
Think about it: When “The Diary of Anne Frank” premiered on Broadway in 1955, it was only a decade after the close of World War II and less than 10 years since the Nuremberg Trials. For the audience then, the poignancy of a precocious teenager who died in a concentration camp before she could blossom as a young adult had a direct, immediate effect. It was the story of one girl and her family — but it was also the story of millions.
Far be it from me to argue that the play lacks educational value. It’s always important to underscore the fact that the Nazis were the embodiment of evil, not to mention a singular example of mass psychosis. But at this remove, the play feels like a museum piece. We can appreciate it through the gauze of history, but we can never respond the way those audiences in the ’50s did.
And there are plenty of Holocaust plays to choose from — most of them less familiar to the general theater-going public.
In the 1990s the late George Keathley, artistic director of what was then known as Missouri Repertory Theatre, edited and directed his own memorable version of Rolf Hochhuth’s “The Deputy,” a sprawling epic that accused the Vatican of failing to take a moral stand against Germany’s “final solution.” Also in the ’90s, Quality Hill Playhouse produced “Kindertransport” by Diane Samuels, based on a British policy of taking in Jewish children during the Nazi rise to power. In the ’80s the Unicorn staged Martin Sherman’s “Bent,” which showed that homosexuals, in addition to Jews and other minorities, were sent to death camps.
There are other worthy plays that deal with the Holocaust that, as far as I know, have never been produced in Kansas City. “The Investigation” by Peter Weiss is a chilling, matter-of-fact account of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials in the ’60s. Arthur Miller wrote the powerful “Incident at Vichy” in the same decade. “Good” by British writer Cecil Philip Taylor shows the metamorphosis of a mild-mannered literary professor into a Nazi zealot.
The list goes on, virtually to infinity. The point being: If the theater is a place to raise troubling questions and seek a deeper understanding of the most disturbing chapters of history, why not introduce something new to your audience? Why not tell them a story they don’t already know?
The Rep has done that in the past. I hope it will again.