Two weeks ago I found myself in midtown Manhattan at the 5th Avenue entrance to Trump Tower. Tourists were getting selfies with the big-gun toting NYPD counterterrorism commandos in the doorway while I shuffled through the door in a strange daze. It’s an office building and condo tower with lobby decor straight out of the 1980s, mall-like escalators reach up into the upper levels and everything is plated with in a gold veneer covered in greasy fingerprints. There were a few folks who seemed like they’d come here with purpose, the variety of wealthy silver-haired boomers who wear ball caps from Augusta National and Nautica windbreakers. I watched them sitting in their small groups at the restaurant on the bottom floor projecting a confident swagger as they sipped from aluminum bottles of Bud Light. A word popped into my head: “Collaborators” and it rolled around my mouth like marbles for the rest of the day.
That word is said often during Eric Samuelsen’s The Ice Front, a tense rumination on the responsibilities of artists in troubled times. Set in WWII Norway during the German Occupation, The Ice Front teases out the internal debate within the Norwegian National Theatre Company, whose players actors are ordered to perform a piece of Nazi propaganda.
As the play begins, the company has thus far been going along to get along, performing benign classics to empty houses. They are useful to the Nazis, a propaganda symbol that life under the occupation is as it always has been and the storied National Theater is open for business. All is well. Meanwhile, Norwegians under occupation are expected to abide by a set of resistance rules, decreed by the Norwegian king in exile. The rules are collectively called “The Ice Front” and provide a framework for patriotic Norwegians to work, passively and actively, to undermine the Nazis and their collaborating Norwegian government called, the Quislings, after Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian military officer tapped to run Norway after the German invasion.
The actors walk the fine line between the Ice Front and the Quislings but this new play, a piece of anti-Semitic doggrel called The Last Scream, breaks the peace and sets up an internal debate about patriotism, artistic integrity and sacrifice. The troupe is divided, Astrid (Christy Summerhays) feels safe behind her fame and while Anders’ (Robert Scott Smith) thinly hidden homosexuality adds another layer of fear and risk to any sudden moves. Hotheaded Mette (Ariana Broumas Farber), essentially wants to burn the theater down while young ingenue Bente (Emilie Starr) and hidden Jew Egil (Jay Perry) urge flat out refusal to perform the play. The cooler heads, stage manger Birgit (Stephanie Howell) and the most capable thespian Peter (Daniel Beecher), encourage a hedging, delaying approach. They will find ways to sabotage the opening, to delay the performance until hopefully the powers that are pushing for the play lose interest. But, of course, they don’t lose interest and the tactics the company employ become more and more risky until the water boils over and the Quisling theater administrator Morton (Mark Fossen) and his Nazi attack dog Heinrich (Topher Rassmussen) bring down the hammer.
The Ice Front is essentially a formal parlor play firmly in the tradition of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, a name that is dropped often during the two-hour production. The heart is the grand debate among the players as their options dwindle, desperation galvanizes the group and divisions in the face of a common enemy fall away. It’s a big cast and they each have a lot of heavy lifting to do. There are no standouts in this production. It’s a thorough team effort for one of the largest casts I’ve seen on Plan-B’s stage.
It’s not perfect. At times, its pedantic and tedious. At several points late in the play, an old argument would resurface and I’d think “umm I thought y’all had decided this already.” Despite these bumps, I was nevertheless engaged by the material, which viewed through the lens of life in Trump’s America is chilling. Although direct comparisons with the Trump Administration and the Third Reich are hamfisted and ignorant of history, there are parallels. There are people being asked to go along with things that may not be in the best interest of the nation, people are being asked to collaborate, in essence. There are those among us gleefully doing so (the Quislings) and others who wring their hands and hope it will all go away (the players). And this play shows how difficult and muddy decisions along those lines can be. For me the play’s most through-the-looking-glass moment comes during a discussion of Hamlet (the play is chock full of inside baseball) when Peter blurts out: “Why doesn’t Hamlet just kill Claudius?”
The stock AP English answer, which his fellow players provide, is that Hamlet isn’t sure of himself, he thinks he’s going crazy. He doesn’t know if his father’s ghost was real or a sign of his own fragile grip on reality. Peter responds by pointing out that the citizens of Denmark in Hamlet have also collectively gone mad by allowing a pretender on the throne when clearly Prince Hamlet should be king. Hamlet’s madness, Samuelsen implies, is Denmark’s madness. And Claudius is counting on the madness to remain king. I’d never thought about the citizens of Elsinore before and I’m grateful for Samuelsen for drawing that image for me. These days it feels like another Claudius is counting on our collective madness and division, self-doubt and feet of clay to remain king, doesn’t it? Certainly, things do feel rotten.
The Ice Front (which is set in Norway, Hamlet is set in Denmark, I know, it’s confusing) continues thorough, Nov. 19, 2017 at the Rose Wagner Theatre. The run is sold out. But Plan-B’s wait list is a a solid bet. To get on the list, go to the box office at the Rose Wagner, one hour before curtain. Go hang out at Squatter’s or something until five minutes before showtime when they fill empty seats.