Back to Back Theatre, the Australian company passing through Chicago this weekend at the Museum of Contemporary Art, is a theater group comprising almost entirely of actors perceived to be intellectually disabled. Such an endeavor can paralyze a critic — this one, anyway.
How does one complain about such an actor's performance, be that complaint merited or not, when the actor has clearly overcome so much? And yet, is not such careful tiptoeing through the tulips of political correctness the very kind of condescension that persons with disabilities most despise? Does one detail the degree or type of disability for the curious reader, assuming one can discern them? And what right does anybody have to even talk about someone else's mental disability, since our minds all land on some kind of continuum? Ability, disability, shmisability, gifted, challenged, what does it all even mean? What right does anyone have to judge anyone else, period?And since posing these questions negates my need to confront them, I'll keep going. Mental disability in life is hardly the same thing as mental disability in acting. For an actor with a mental disability, one might argue that at some level, it can be seen as a special talent, and thus an actor's asset.
The remarkable thing about "Ganesh Versus the Third Reich" is that it is explicitly about all of the above. It is also, I think, perhaps the most profound and unsettling meditation on the unknowable aspects of the art of acting I've ever seen, which perhaps explains why the ovation that followed the Thursday performance wasn't just one of admiration but emotional catharsis.
Be warned, this is not an easy or linear piece of theater on any level. Every time you think you have a firm grasp on what these artists want to say, it slips out of your hands. Every time you think you understand what this work means, the piece wanders off (literally, in the case of one of the actors) into an entirely different direction. For much of the time, the tone of the piece has a certain quirky, Aussie insouciance, a wicked-dark sense of humor that jars with the daring use of sacred, odious and potent symbols: Ganesh, Hitler, a swastika, the uniform of a concentration camp. If any of that sounds offensive, you have my word it would not sound that way after seeing the play.
At other moments, the mood turns. Consider this grenade, launched into the audience by the most genial fellow: "You've all come to see a freak show. A zoo."
Well, we're all freaks, mates. And we're all engaged in endless debates about who has the right to this, that and the other. Such is the trajectory of the evening. One is here watching a play wherein an elephant-headed Hindu god, the hero of the piece for reasons that work on a variety of levels, has traveled from India to Nazi Germany to reclaim the corrupted "ancient Sanskrit" symbol of the swastika. Hitler fights back. So does Josef Mengele. At one point that I won't quickly forget, one character observes that his mental disability kept him alive, being as it aroused Mengele's curiosity.
That's about 25 percent of the show. The other 75 percent is about the process of creating it, focused almost entirely on the legitimacy (or lack thereof) of that creative act.
The audience is constantly confronted with its own expectations. Are these memorized lines or improvisations? Is this a character or the way the actor normally speaks? Is the actor who does not seem to have a mental disability, the handsome actor named Luke Ryan who looks like he just shot a beachfront commercial for Foster's Lager and who seems to be running the show, benign or exploitative? Is this work, playing Hitler, Ganesh and Jewish prisoners, freeing these actors or merely entrapping them? Is this acting good?
Great, actually. Especially the work of Mark Deans and Simon Laherty; Laherty has an inherent moral authority that is almost overwhelming in its unspoken force and humility. No one can be sure of the mechanisms of fact or fiction here.
Despite its title, "Ganesh Versus the Third Reich," devised and directed by Bruce Gladwin and also featuring the unstinting performers Scott Price and Brian Tilley, could hardly be simpler. It is a celebration of what the courageous can do. Of course, all night long you're very much aware that mentally disabled actors are performing a work set in a place and time when they would have been exterminated. There is the matter of that.
When: Through Sunday
Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Tickets: $28 at 312-397-4010 or mcachicago.org