P/sunny
75°
P/sunny
Hi 74° | Lo 52°

Good Confronts Evil in “Ganesh Versus the Third Reich,” a Serious Play With Funny Moments

A publicity image for Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, which comes to Hanover next week. (Courtesy photograph)

A publicity image for Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, which comes to Hanover next week. (Courtesy photograph)

As a piece of theater, Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, which arrives for a two-day engagement next weekend at the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College, sounds, initially, as improbable as its Super Hero title.

In the audacious production by the Back to Back Theatre company, Ganesh, the venerated, elephant-headed Hindu god of arts and letters, and the remover of obstacles, travels from India to Hitler’s Germany to reclaim the ancient Hindu symbol of the swastika, which has become associated in the West largely with the evils of the Nazi regime.

Going on to Poland, Ganesh confronts Josef Mengele, the physician and so-called “Angel of Death” at Auschwitz, who performed grotesque, inhumane experiments on twins, the Roma and people with what he considered to be physical abnormalities or mental defects.

Where the swastika, in Hinduism and Buddhism, typically signifies goodness or harmony with oneself, the Nazi appropriation was an obvious perversion of not only its meaning — from one celebrating life to one heralding war and terror — but its form, as the Nazi propagandists rotated the original swastika to the right.

Even more unusual for a theatrical piece about a Hindu deity confronting the Holocaust, its place of origin isn’t India, Europe or even the Americas, where many Jews settled after escaping Nazi Germany, but Australia. And Back to Back Theatre, which is located in Geelong, a city southwest of Melbourne, is made up of a troupe of actors who have been labeled by society as having disabilities of one kind or another, whether physical or intellectual.

“When we came up with the idea for show, we initially thought it was too complex,” said Back to Back’s artistic director Bruce Gladwin, interviewed by phone from New York, where the company is performing Ganesh Versus the Third Reich through Jan. 14 at the Public Theater, prior to coming to Hanover.

“We thought we didn’t have the right to make the show. We’re a small regional town in Australia, removed from the horrific atrocities of World War II. It’s not our story. But we reached a turning point where we went from where we felt we couldn’t become the story to it becoming a point of investigation for us. How could we do that?” he said.

How they did that was to discuss, improvise and prod and poke at numerous sacred cows (or, in this case, elephants). After five years of development, Ganesh Versus the Third Reich had its premiere in the fall of 2011 at the Melbourne Theatre Festival, where it won the Age Critics Award. In 2012, it was given the 2012 Helpmann Award for Best Play (named for dancer and actor Robert Helpmann), which recognizes “distinguished artistic achievement and excellence in Australia’s live performing arts.”

The English newspaper The Guardian named it one of the best stage shows to grace the London stage in 2012, and The New York Times recently proclaimed it as one of the most anticipated theatrical events of 2013. It has already been performed in Europe, and, after the Hopkins Center, will tour to Los Angeles, Minneapolis, back to Australia, then to France, Germany and Canada.

Further complicating (and deepening) the production is the fact that it is a play within a play: Ganesh’s journey is interrupted by the actors breaking character to go back into rehearsal, as they bicker over the staging, the meaning, the direction and the ethical implications of using people called “disabled” to act the parts of the subjugators and the subjugated.

Not least of the thorny questions posed by the play is the role of the audience itself. Theatergoers aren’t just passive observers but on the receiving end of a moral challenge put to them by the actors: Are they there to engage in theater or in part to, as the director (played by David Woods) puts it, indulge in “freak porn?”

But once the play begins and the actors take the stage, any assumptions about abilities or disabilities, or whatever clumsy, imperfect term you use to tiptoe around perceptions of difference, disappear, and what you have is a two-hour play that is epic in ambition and design, sharply observed, pointed in the questions it raises about moral culpability, and unexpectedly and frequently comical.

The cast gets laughs from the disjuncture between the way the actors view themselves and the way the director does: They speak directly and tersely while he speaks to them slowly and carefully and with a maddening condescension, as if he were talking to children whose first language was not English while also taking care to congratulate them on their “specialness.”

The tricky thing in staging Ganesh, with its iconoclastic humor and depiction of power dynamics, said Gladwin, is that “you never know how it’s going to land. ... As an audience member you think it’s going in one direction and then it turns quite radically.”

The audience response has been positive, said Gladwin. Early on there were some protests from a small contingent of U.S.-based Indian Hindus about the way Ganesh would be represented. The company, said Gladwin, “engaged in a dialogue with them” and “was happy to accommodate changes. Since then we’ve shown it in London, which has a massive Indian population, and there was absolutely no form of protest.”

The audience, he said, “appreciates the complexities of the work. It’s a lot to hold in your hand. ...You do have to work; it’s not like Hello Dolly.” On the other hand, Gladwin said, they have taken care not to treat the material as a series of homilies: “No one is bludgeoned with anything,” he said.

The fact that company members are identified as having disabilities is really beside the point, Gladwin said. Anyone involved in Back to Back Theatre “doesn’t like to talk about the theater as if it is performing some kind of charitable function. It’s not the intention of the company to work to that purpose.”

“A lot of the actors,” he said, “don’t see themselves as having disabilities. Sometimes (that description) feels like a noose around our necks.”

The point, he said, is “we’re trying to create an amazing piece of art, and trust that that resonates with the audience.” He pointed to the example of an Australian dance theater called Bangarra. When it was first founded in the early 1990s and sent out publicity materials, it routinely identified itself and was identified as an Aboriginal, indigenous company. Twenty years later they’ve dispensed with that qualifying description; now they are simply a dance company like any other.

“You become recognized for a body of work. We have to trust that people will recognize it,” Gladwin said.

“Ganesh versus the Third Reich” will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 18 and 19, at the Moore Theater at the Hopkins Center. For tickets and information call the Hopkins Center Box Office at 603-646-2422 or go to hop.dartmouth.edu/performances/ganesh-versus-the-third-reich.

Related Events: Post-performance discussions will be held with the cast at the Moore Theater.

A panel discussion, Religion and Ethics in Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, will be held on Thursday, Jan. 17 at 4:30 p.m. in Haldeman 41, at Dartmouth College. Free and open to the public.

Pre-show talks on Ganesh, Swastikas and the Cultural Appropriation of Hinduism will take place on Jan. 18 and 19 at 7 p.m. in Wilson 219 at Dartmouth. Free and open to the public.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.