31 July 2009

Sobaka: A Memoir

I have had two dogs since I moved to New York; both were adopted from shelters and both stayed with me for a long time. I grew up with dogs in my home when I was little, but those were “family dogs”; Sobaka and Thespis were mine alone. Thespis, my last dog, simply got very old--he was over 17 at the end and just couldn’t go on; but Sobaka fell victim to a brain tumor when he was around 14 and ultimately didn’t recover and I had to put him down early one morning. He was my first dog as an adult; I adopted him shortly after I got out of the army and had moved to New York City. When I commuted to grad school at Rutgers, I took him with me to New Brunswick because I was on campus all day long, often into the early morning hours. He lived in my car and I tended him and walked him between classes--and he even came to a few with me. (I taught an acting class in an old studio in the basement of a freshman dorm. Sobaka hung out under my table--unless, that is, he got excited at something that happened in class. Then he’d spring up and start barking!) I became known to people on the East Brunswick campus where my program was located as the guy with the dog.

I adopted Sobaka from a private shelter in the city; he was 13 months old and had been brought in originally by owners who were moving somewhere they couldn’t keep pets. The dog had been adopted once before, but he wasn’t very good with small children--he thought they were little animals, and he’d chase them--and he’d been returned to the shelter. I’d been calling all the local shelters looking for “a beagle-sized dog” for weeks with no luck when Bideawee, on 38th Street near the East River, said they had a “beagle-mix” available for adoption. I hightailed it up to the shelter and walked through the adoption kennels, looking over the prospects. None were what I was looking for, but this one dog, a long-haired tri-color with a sweet face, just seemed friendly and playful even in his cage. But he was obviously a fairly large dog, maybe 30 or 35 pounds, and I had a small studio apartment. I left the building in disappointment, but the dog was still on my mind and I turned on my heels on the sidewalk in front of the shelter and went back in. He was just so damn pretty! “I’ll take him,” I declared. So I filled out the paperwork and got a leash and so on, and learned that my new dog’s name was Trouble. Ick! What a terrible name! It couldn’t help but give the animal a complex or something. (I learned later, not being an opera buff, that Trouble is the name of Cio-Cio-San’s child in Madame Butterfly.) So, on the walk back down to 15th Street and 5th Avenue, where we would live, I divided my time between making friends with my new companion--not a hard thing to do; he was very friendly--and thinking up a new name for him. By the time I got home, I’d decided. He was really just a dog dog--nothing special except he was handsome, a real mutt. He was a sort of Everydog. One of my friends said later my dog reminded him of the Thurber dog in the New Yorker cartoons. (I described him as a canine Churkendoose because, though he was registered as a beagle-mix, his appearance suggested there were a fair number of breeds in that “mix.”) I didn’t like the sounds of Chien or Hund as names, the French and German words for ‘dog,’ but Sobaka (suh-BAH-kuh), the Russian word, sounded perfect. So, my dog became “Dog” (to anyone who knew Russian), ‘Baka for short.

I used to know a luggage repair shop near Herald Square, up in the mid-30s. The place was on an upper floor of an old highrise and I took an elevator up and it let me out in a wide hallway opposite a long window in an otherwise blank wall above the service counter which rose to about waist height. When I took something in for repair or alteration, I walked up to the window and gave my bag or portfolio to the woman, the wife and partner of the man who did the work, and told her what I wanted. There were usually no other people in the place, and little by little the woman and her husband got to know me a little, enough to pass the time of day. One afternoon, I walked uptown with Sobaka and took him along with me up to the shop. No one was at the counter when I walked up, and you couldn’t see Sobaka at my side from the other side, so when the woman came up to serve me, she could tell I was talking to “someone” but couldn’t see whom. I explained that I had my dog with me, and he rose up on his hind legs so he was tall enough to put his front paws on the counter (he could do this in my kitchen, too, which wasn’t always such a cute thing), and the woman could see whom I was talking to. Now, two things here: One, unless they hated dogs, people made a fuss over Sobaka because he really was gorgeous. Two, this couple were Russian. So, Gospozha fussed a little over the dog and I introduced him to her, saying in Russian, “Ego zovut Sobaka.” Now, Gospozha thought this was the funniest thing she’d ever heard. To her ears, what I just said was, ‘His name’s Dog,’ and she called over to Gospodin and laughed as she told him this guy had a dog named Dog!

‘Baka truly was a good-looking dog. Soon after I brought him home, I noticed that his markings were nearly perfectly bilaterally symmetrical--as if some artist had designed him by drawing one side of him and then folding the drawing in half. He was registered as a tri-color--black, brown (tan, really) and white--but he was really four colors because several of the brown patches were russet, like the color of an Irish setter. He had four white socks on his paws and brown, floppy ears that ended in black fringe. The only markings that weren’t symmetrical were some black freckles on his white muzzle. I even took some photos of him with the idea of trying to get him into commercials or in the illustrations on pet food boxes. Unfortunately, I learned that animal agents weren’t interested in mutts, only purebreds. Besides, ‘Baka turned out to have a serious drawback as a canine model. He was totally devoted to me. I obedience-trained him, but he wouldn’t learn “stay.” He knew “sit” and “down” and “come,” and so on, but he wouldn’t stay put for more than a few seconds, and then he’d run up to me wherever I was. If I ever got him on a set and he’d get in place for the shot, once I walked away, he’d run right after me. So much for the dreams of fame and fortune! (But it was endearing, as you can imagine.)

By the late ‘80s, ‘Baka had had arthritis and a heart murmur for years. I knew he would die some day soon, and I thought I was prepared. Apparently I wasn’t. During the summer of 1987, Sobaka developed a hacking cough. Because of his heart problem, I became worried and took him to have an electrocardiogram. That proved negative, and the cough was diagnosed as bronchitis. Even though the coughing persisted, I was relieved that ‘Baka’s heart was no worse. Shortly after the cough developed, I noticed a lump forming on the underside of his tail. It was small, but I was worried again. When the lump got worse, I took him to the vet for an examination. The lump turned out to be a tumor, benign or malignant was never determined; the doctor also said Sobaka had developed peripheral cataracts. At his age, the surgery to fix these problems would have been more dangerous than the illnesses. The doctor predicted Sobaka would likely die of old age before either problem could cause difficulties. In a sense, the doctor was right.

So I waited, watching for more signs that Sobaka, still handsome and as sweet-faced as a puppy, was deteriorating. The dog, who used to respond immediately to my call, whistle, or even mere movement toward the door or his leash, now barely acknowledged my return home from work. Occasionally when I came in the door or awoke in the morning and found him lying motionless on his side, I’d think, ‘My God, he’s died in his sleep.’ I’d lean down to feel his breathing, and he’d open his eyes. He wouldn’t move right away, but at least I’d know he was alive.

All this time, Sobaka never showed signs of being in pain. Moans and groans when he lay down or turned over I was assured were just like those of some older people--not really discomfort, but effort and exertion. In early middle age, I made the same noises myself sometimes.

Of course, ‘Baka wasn’t as much fun anymore as he was when I first adopted him. At a year old, when I brought him home for the first time, he’d run with me, chase sticks--never balls, though I never knew why--wrestle, and play tug-o’-war with an old sock. I taught him to play catch with grapes, which he loved. (Uncharacteristically for canines, Sobaka loved fruit. An old guy in my building used to delight in feeding him bananas and when I ate an apple, I’d give him the core which he’d gobble up in nothing flat.) Now, he just lay around and went for short, slow walks. Still, I knew I wasn’t ready to give him up. As long as life didn’t pain him, I’d put up with his occasional inconvenience and generally increasing neuroses.

Just when I’d settled into the idea that he had problems I had to watch, and that a decision whether or not to operate might soon have to be made, something more immediately threatening happened. One evening in April 1988, while my parents were visiting from out of town, Sobaka seemed unable to find a comfortable place to lie. Moving around the room, he seemed to be going from one piece of furniture to another, his rear end fishtailing into a chair or a table as he passed. When he finally settled next to a chair near me, I moved over and began to pet him. I noticed a shudder each time he inhaled. I became concerned, but couldn’t figure out what could be wrong. My mother decided he might be having chills, so I got an old throw rug and wrapped him in it. He never looked up either when I left his side or when I tucked the rug around him. He stayed that way, wrapped in a rug, with my mother sitting on the floor on his right and me in the chair on his left, for an hour. Normally, he’d have hated being covered that way and would have shaken off the rug or climbed on top of it.

All the time we were debating whether or not to take him to the emergency clinic. We couldn’t imagine what the problem could be. None of Sobaka’s other medical conditions lined up with this as far as we could tell. When the shuddering subsided, we decided to wait until morning and call a vet.

On his evening walk--which I had to coax him into--he continued to list to the left, leaning against walls like Lee Marvin’s drunken horse in Cat Ballou. He didn’t want to walk at all at first; I had to cajole him until he began to move very slowly. I kept him out only until he’d done his business, then returned home where I put him to bed in one of his usual spots in my bedroom and covered him with the rug. He seemed content to lie under the cover, and I went to sleep with one ear attuned to ‘Baka’s every move or sound. Usually Sobaka changed location frequently during the night. He was free to wander anywhere he wanted, as I kept my bedroom door open when I was alone. With my parents visiting, I habitually closed the bedroom door so the dog wouldn’t wander about and disturb their sleep. Now, of course, he stayed put anyway. At about 4 a.m., however, he crawled out from under the rug and moved elsewhere. He moved again at around 6. I was encouraged--maybe he was coming back around and would be fine in the morning.

At 7, I got up to get ready for work. Sobaka seemed fine, though sluggish. He had long ago stopped greeting the morning with much enthusiasm, so it wasn’t very surprising. He was, at least, alive and awake. I got dressed to take him out. On his walk, though he wasn’t as resistant as the previous night, he still listed to one side and seemed to lose control over his back end. I came home and reported this to my waiting parents. We decided I should go to work--a train commute across the Hudson to teach high school in suburban New Jersey. At 9, my folks would call the clinic where Sobaka was treated and describe his symptoms. I planned to call home from work at 9:30 to see what was decided.

On the train ride to work, I couldn’t stop thinking about Sobaka. His hound-dog face with the floppy, spaniel ears and soft, brown eyes kept looking at me. For thirteen years, ever since I’d adopted him from the kennel, he’d been an ever-present responsibility. I couldn’t go out without planning for his needs; I had to walk him in all weather without fail, regardless of my own health; he had to be looked after if I went away; I had to rent a car and take him with me when I visited my parents in Washington; I had to get him checked and vaccinated regularly and clean up after his accidents and illnesses. Sometimes my life seemed to revolve around Sobaka. For thirteen years I did all that and knew that he was worth it. But I never anthropomorphized Sobaka. He wasn’t my “son”; he wasn’t a person. He was my pet--a dog. I thought I was being very rational about my attachment to Sobaka. Now I was wondering what my world might be like without him. When he was “visiting” my parents without me, it was always strange to come home and not find him waiting. I’d often call out as I opened the door before I remembered he was away. My schedule seemed very empty because it didn’t include our regular walks through the neighborhood. I’d save table scraps, only to remember I had no one to give them to. My plates went unlicked.

But on these occasions, I always knew Sobaka would be back. Either my parents would return him to me in New York, or I’d go to Washington and bring him back. It was always just a few days or a couple of weeks, and I knew where he was. Here was the real possibility he might be taken away forever. What would I do after thirteen years? My parents were the only people I’d ever lived with that long--no other living thing had been my companion for so long.

I got to work and went through the routine of getting ready to teach my first class. At 9:30 I decided my parents must have called the clinic and would know something. I phoned home. My mother answered. She had spoken to the clinic, but the vet hadn’t been available. She was to call back after a little while; I’d call her after 11. I taught my first class then rushed to a phone to call home again. The doctor had said Sobaka may have had a mini-stroke, and he would make room in his schedule to see him.

A stroke. It made sense, but I hadn’t anticipated anything so . . . fatal. None of Sobaka’s other medical problems were really life-threatening. Even if the tumor proved cancerous, old age would have taken him before the cancer could. But a stroke was different. It could kill him anytime--or leave him paralyzed or something. It could happen during the night or while I was at work or anytime--and I would be unable to help him. Now my imagined fears had reality. Sobaka might actually die--not in a year or so, but now. My being several hours away didn’t help calm me. At the same time, I felt vaguely silly. Sobaka was just a dog, after all. If I told a fellow teacher how I really felt, I’d be laughed at. I knew my teenaged students wouldn’t understand.

In the end, informed that Sobaka needed to be watched carefully for the next several days, we decided my parents would take him to Washington with them. I couldn’t stay with him because of my teaching job. We also discussed the possibility of euthanasia. While he was away, he had a crisis during which he couldn’t walk at all, but he came out of it after a few days. A family friend in Washington who is a veterinarian examined him and explained that dogs couldn’t really have strokes, but he was unable to diagnose Sobaka’s problem. My parents brought him back to New York. A few days later, he relapsed and I rushed him off to the Animal Medical Center for another examination. I thought another doctor, a specialist, might have better luck. If not, putting Sobaka to sleep began to look like a very likely possibility. The doctor did settle on a diagnosis: an inoperable brain tumor. There was only one feasible remedy, an experimental drug that might shrink the tumor enough to restore Sobaka’s mobility. There was no guarantee the medication would work, and there was a potential side effect that I would have to watch closely for. The drug often caused internal bleeding.

After three days of administering the medicine, ‘Baka suddenly got up and walked. I had gone out to get a newspaper, leaving him in his place in the hall. When I got home, he was gone; I found him standing in the bedroom, leaning against the wall. I actually shrieked with pleasure. I was certain he was all right and would recover. It took several more days before ‘Baka would go out for a walk, but I believed he would continue to improve. My elation was unwarranted. Less than a week later, Sobaka began to deteriorate again, and ended up unable to walk at all again. The doctor advised increasing the medicine dosage, but Sobaka didn’t respond. I finally resigned myself to the obvious: Sobaka would never recover and could not continue in his present condition. I made an appointment to have him euthanized over the weekend. I began to feel mildly depressed, and couldn’t shake the feeling. The reality of what I refused to face for several weeks was now unavoidable. I was going to lose Sobaka and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. I thought I had come to grips, at least intellectually, with the decision, and made plans for a summer trip on the basis that I wouldn’t have ‘Baka to care for. I waited for Saturday morning.

Suddenly, in the middle of the night the Monday before the day of the euthanasia appointment, Sobaka began to whine and yelp. I couldn’t find anything outwardly wrong with him, and he seemed to stop if I got on the floor and held him. As soon as I let go and went back to bed, however, he started again. Then I noticed bloody saliva on the old quilt I was using for his bed. I knew then that the predicted side effect of the drug, internal bleeding, had begun. Realizing that Sobaka couldn’t last through the night this way, and certainly couldn’t wait until Saturday, I dressed quickly and carried him out to the street to get a cab to the Animal Medical Center. Now that he was obviously in pain, the situation was different. I could no longer put off what I knew I had to do. I held Sobaka in my lap on the ride to the hospital and talked softly to him the whole way. He was quiet the entire trip, but kept looking up at me. I guess he expected me to make it all right as I had always managed to do all our lives together. I had started to cry silently and hugged Sobaka. The cabby asked if he was sick. “He’s dying,” I said. The driver didn’t respond, and I was just as glad.

At the hospital, I rushed up the ramp to the clinic, Sobaka cradled in my arms like a child. At three o’clock on a Tuesday morning there were few other patients there, so I was ushered right into an examination room. The attending vet went right into action, recognizing the symptoms of internal bleeding. She began to give orders for immediate medication, but I told her not to try to treat him. I explained the circumstances and told her that I had already had an appointment to have Sobaka put to sleep the next Saturday. I asked her if we could just do it now. She said yes and ordered the injection. The doctor asked me if I wanted to be with him when he was injected. I said I did; I couldn’t imagine letting him go without my being with him to hold him and comfort him as he went to sleep.

The doctor explained what would happen so I knew what to expect. She would inject Sobaka with an overdose of barbiturates, and he would literally go to sleep; then his heart would stop. Actually there were two injections. The first just made him sleep; the second stopped his heart. It took a few minutes, and I held Sobaka while he lay on the metal table and talked to him so he would know I was there with him. It happened just as the doctor described: he just closed his eyes and I felt his heart stop beating. The doctor offered to let me stay with Sobaka while the paper work and the bill were prepared, but I couldn’t stay and look at him lying on the table as if he really were just asleep. I left the examining room and slid the door closed so I couldn’t see him. I couldn’t stop sniffling and tearing, and I felt embarrassed, though no one seemed to notice.

I paid the bill for the euthanasia and went home. I put away some of ‘Baka’s things, washed the towel I had wrapped him in and the shirt I had worn because they had blood from Sobaka’s saliva on them, took a shower and went to bed. It was about 4 a.m. on Tuesday, a school day, of course, and I couldn’t skip work. I got up a few hours after going to bed, dressed for work and called my parents to tell them what had happened. They had planned to come up on Saturday so I wouldn’t be alone, and I didn’t see any point in that now. For the next several days, I managed to get through the school day without obvious problems as long as I was working. On the train and during breaks, the depression returned and I often had to hide tears. A forty-year-old high school English teacher can’t be seen crying in the hallway; it isn’t seemly.

Generally I managed to get through the remainder of the term without incident, although once I almost lost it in class. My ninth-grade English class had been watching the film of Romeo and Juliet, and the crypt scene, with Juliet supposedly dead on the tomb and Romeo kneeling beside her, was set up exactly like the examining room. Fortunately, I was standing by the open rear door to the classroom and slipped out for a few seconds until the scene was over. Even now, years later, I can’t picture the scene of Sobaka’s death without tearing. There are several pictures of both my dogs around the apartment, and they always remind me of one or another of Sobaka’s or Thespis’ silly habits. I keep telling myself that they were just dogs, and that 14 and 17 are the usual canine lifespan or more. None of that really makes any difference. I still miss them.

It took me over a year to get another dog after Sobaka died. Since Thespis, another adopted mutt, died almost five years ago now, I still haven’t gone looking for a new pet. I don’t think it’s the prospect of losing another dog that deters me. I tell myself--and anyone who asks why I haven’t gotten another dog--that I just haven’t gotten the energy up to do the looking. Even so, I often miss having a dog around, especially when I see someone enjoying the companionship.

27 July 2009

'Trilogia della Villeggiatura' (Lincoln Center Festival 2009)

Carlo Goldoni’s Trilogia della Villeggiatura, presented by the Piccolo Teatro di Milano and Teatri Uniti di Napoli, opened on Wednesday, 22 July, at the Rose Theater, a sub-venue of the Frederick P. Rose Hall in the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle. The production featured stage and movie actor Toni Servillo (Il Divo, Gommorah), who also directed. (Teatri Uniti is Servillo’s own company, founded in 1987. Giorgio Strehler’s production of Arlecchino, also by Goldoni, for the Piccolo appeared at the 2005 LCF.) Of the three LCF performances my friend Diana and I selected this year, this was the most disappointing for several connected reasons.

Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni's 1761 three-part satire of the Italian middle class, revived more than 50 years ago by the Piccolo's late founder, Giorgio Strehler, was performed in Italian with English supertitles. The play, whose title translates as “The Holiday Trilogy” (though it’s always called by its Italian title), follows two families from Livorno as they prepare for, go on, and return from a vacation in the country (villeggiatura means ‘summer holiday in the country’). Comic misadventures ensue, and the play is character- and plot-driven. The playwright is making caustic observations about both the Italian society of his day (which aren’t out of line with today’s world even here in the U.S.) and life’s ironies and injustices. Impossible or unlikely romance and financial problems are the main subjects. Goldoni was something of an innovator in Western theater: he was one of the first dramatists to focus on the concerns of the growing middle class. After adapting the antics of the Renaissance farces--Arlecchino, a version of Goldoni’s best-known play, Servant of Two Masters (1745), is based on Commedia characters and practices--Goldoni turned to characters and situations more closely resembling contemporary life. Everyday matters, such as the preparations for a trip to the country or the mishaps of a vacation, became the brushstrokes with which he painted his middle-class portraits. Like Schiller, who came along about a half century later, Goldoni often wrote in the vernacular of his own native environment--Venetian for Goldoni and Schwabian for Schiller--affording his characters the tone of ordinary people.

I won’t present a detailed synopsis of the play (which the Piccolo kindly did provide in the program), but I will say that the play is divided into three parts (hence the “trilogy,” though it’s performed in two acts): in Livorno preparing to leave for the country, in the country, back in Livorno after the interrupted vacation. (As far as I can tell, the Piccolo’s rendition is a combination of three connected plays, an actual trilogy: "Pining for Vacation," "Holiday Adventures," and "Back from Vacation," all dated 1761. This could account for the length of the LCF production: two hours, forty-five minutes. It probably also accounts for the sometimes lengthy set-changes, which was odd considering how minimal the design was.) In Servillo’s adaptation, the first act, which incorporates the prep for the country vacation and the first part of the stay, embodies the farcical elements of the story such as what dresses to take on vacation and who will be sitting in whose carriage during the trip; act two, dealing with the second part of the country trip and the return to town, moves into the realm of seriousness and consequentiality, namely the problems of indebtedness, financial reversals, and marital loyalty.

As I said, this was a disappointing performance, and I will try to tell you why in a moment. First, however, let me start by praising the general work of the Piccolo, with which I could find no serious fault. (I did think they spoke awfully fast, but that’s partly the nature of the Italian language and partly the nature of the 18th-century comedy of manners which Goldoni composed.) Despite the supertitles and their placement (yes, I’m going to castigate that technology again!), I was able to follow a good deal of the characterizations the actors accomplished, and this work, like the work of the other ensembles I have praised recently, was noteworthy. Once again, I witnessed the immense advantage that actors gain when performing with others they know well and have worked with for many years. Individually, however, the cast was just as accomplished as any in the star-oriented West End or Broadway theater. Villeggiatura, because it moves from near-farce to near-melodrama, demands that many of the characters shift from a light touch to deeper emotional commitment, from Commedia-like stylization to what can only be described as 18th-century naturalism. The central characters of Leonardo and Giacinta also move from confidence to insecurity and even fear to resignation and acceptance, and the actors Andrea Renzi and Anna Della Rosa accomplished this with complete believability in both their vocal and physical demeanor.

In contrast, there are the characters who never seem to change irrespective of stimulus. Prominent among these are Tognino, the dimwitted country doctor’s son (Marco D'Amore), and the freeloading Ferdinando, the man who came forever (director-adapter Servillo). These men are more allied to the farcical predecessors of Goldoni’s earlier work and keep the play in a lighter vein when they are on stage. The actors, both clearly accomplished farceurs, maintained the perfect level of imbecility (D’Amore) and foppishness (Servillo). It is when the play was in the farce mode that the verbiage raced past at warp speed; when the more serious moments of the play took stage, the speech became more naturalistic (and the supertitles easier to follow).

The clearer example of the evolution in intensity is the romances Goldoni lays out in the story. While the financial problems are the catalyst for the play’s conclusion, it is a subject that’s handled one-dimensionally in each half of the play. In the first part, Leonardo simply dismisses the matter of the debts he owes the merchants and vendors in town, mush as Scarlet O’Hara dismisses all unpleasant concerns with a “fiddle-dee-dee.” In the second part, the debts come due and Leonardo’s distraught, but his friend and adviser, Fulgenzio, simply devises a viable solution and Leonardo and the others all adopt it, resolving the matter precipitously. The love stories, however, are a more complex matter. Goldoni seems to be exploring the various notions of love’s obligations and marital commitment and has devised several permutations to demonstrate the issues.

Freeloading Ferdinando precipitates a dalliance with Filippo’s elderly, widowed sister, Sabina. This is the purely comic romance, not too different from ones that are lampooned in the Commedias. Two oldsters, one a man-hungry biddy and the other a commitment-phobic mooch, tease and banter throughout the play. Rosina, a working-class country girl, is encouraged by her mother to flirt with the doctor’s idiot son, Tognino, because she has no dowry and can do no better. The doctor, when he learns of this courtship, threatens to disown his son, but the couple marry in secret and for all Tognino’s lack of wits, both are delighted with the match. The servants Paulino and Brigida are also in love, but theirs is the only normal romance in the bunch: they simply love each other and nothing stands in their way. It’s the model against which all the other romances should be measured.

Then there’s Leonardo, Giacinta, Guglielmo, and Vittoria. Leonardo loves Giacinta, his neighbor and the daughter of his older friend, Filippo. She seems to return his affections, but Filippo isn’t sure if the match is the best one, so he’s promoting Guglielmo. In the first act, this all takes the form of Leonardo’s distress over traveling to the country with the father and daughter and whether he can ride in their carriage with her. When he learns that Filippo has invited Guglielmo to travel with them, Leonardo declares he won’t go at all. There’s also the matter of his sister Vittoria’s new dress for the trip, so this going-not going-going again seesaw goes on for most of the first scene accompanied by a lot of running about between the two houses. It’s all silliness, of course. But the tenor shifts as Giacinta begins to develop feelings for Guglielmo even though she’s now become officially engaged to Leonardo. Can she break off the engagement and follow her heart? Or should she remain true to the commitment and the contract she and her father have made with Leonardo? Leonardo sees the development and becomes jealous of Guglielmo and suspicious of Giacinta. Leonardo and Giacinta begin to show signs of insecurity and troubled minds; no longer is the romantic road so smooth and easy. Meanwhile, as an excuse to stick around, Guglielmo pretends to be paying court to Vittoria, who is more than pleased with this turn of events. Guglielmo is non-committal, but keeps the ball in play until he and Giacinta are caught meeting in the woods one night. Giacinta explains to Leonardo that Guglielmo has come to her for advice about proposing to Vittoria, and Guglielmo confirms the story. Now committed to Vittoria, even though that’s not what he intended, Guglielmo dutifully plays the fiancé despite his feelings for Giacinta. Giacinta struggles with the conflict she has but finally decides that she must accompany her husband when he leaves for Genoa to restore his fortunes and leave Guglielmo behind. None of this is particularly funny--the comedy is supplied in the last part of the play by the secretly married Rosina and Tognino (who has trouble keeping the secret, he’s so thrilled to be a married man). Love and marriage, Goldoni shows us, is not so carefree and enchanting as the earlier romantic comedies would have us all believe. Sometimes you marry a boob. Sometimes you commit to something you wish you hadn’t. Sometimes the demands of married life are harsh and unforgiving. Only the servants got happily-ever-after.

It is also worth noting, I think, that casting had an effect on the way the play came across. I know that sounds obvious, but give me moment. Now, I’m not so familiar with Villeggiatura as I was with Arlecchino, say, but my impression is that the young characters here ought to be in their twenties, or early thirties at most. Leonardo, Giacinta, Vittoria, and Guglielmo, the four romantic leads, as it were, seem as if they ought to be young. (The same, I would say, is true of the servant-lovers. The fourth pair of romantic partners, Rosina and Tognino, may even be younger as Tognino at one point says he’s 16.) Besides the fact that most lovers in Renaissance plays are in late adolescence (and marriage at the time tended to occur by that age anyway), the nature of the characters, with their obsession over fashion and appearances and their disregard for serious concerns like finances and debts, makes them seem callow. The actors, however, were much older, making them seem somewhat long in the tooth to behave like flibbertigibbets. Actually, I don’t really know how old the women are, but Renzi is 46 and Tommaso Ragno, who plays Leonardo’s rival, Guglielmo, is 43. (I assume the women are comparable ages.) It isn’t a matter of actors playing roles younger than they are--Tony Perkins played juveniles until he was in his forties, but he looked like a kid even then. These men, especially Renzi, looked their ages. (Leonardo changed his shirt in the first scene and it was obvious he’s no youngster.) This not only changes the dynamic of the romantic aspects of the story, but it also throws a different light on the matter of financial woes. A man of 20 or so might well overlook such matters: he inherited wealth and a successful business--let them take care of themselves while he just spends and has fun. (It’s not like we haven’t seen that in our day. People magazine is full of guys and gals like that! Does the name Paris Hilton ring any bells?) But a 40-something man ought to have learned a thing or two by now. His businesses need management, his affairs need looking after. He also ought to be above worrying about who sits next to his neighbor’s daughter in the carriage--that’s so high school! On the other hand, maybe I’m just hypersensitive.

Both actors, though, had a superb technical grasp of the roles and in all other respects gave creditable performances. Ragno has a terrific additional asset which he and Servillo used to great effect. He has the most sonorous baritone voice! It seemed incongruous at first--he looks like he ought to be a tenor, and then this deep growl came out of his mouth. Guglielmo seldom spoke above what Charles Isherwood described in the Times as a “sexy purr.”

The sets, by Carlo Sala, were minimalistic for the most part. (In Back Stage, Jason Fitzgerald credits the set design with “setting the canvas” and creating “the most arresting moment” in the production.) In town, the houses of Leonardo and Filippo were designated by the same bare façade formed by a simple taupe-colored flat with a large opening in the center and two smaller doorways on each side. A few chairs, lounges, and tables were carried on and off by the servants and a sort of light flash behind the flat indicated when we changed from Leonardo and Vittoria’s house to Filippo and Giacinta’s. As the setting shifted from one to the other in a series of quick scenes in the first part of act one, this allowed the largely farcical act to move swiftly and seamlessly. When the play moved to the country, the first setting was equally spare, with just the sweep of a sky cyc emblazoned with a bright, yellow sun across the back and, again, occasional furniture--this time folding lawn seats and tables--brought on and off. Act two, however, opened in a country glade which Sala rendered with a backdrop of willow-like tree branches, a leaf-patterned ground cloth, and projection through a cookie of leafy shadows over the whole scene that dappled the actors as if they were in a moon-lit forest under a lacy canopy of leaves. It was the most elaborate set of the production and though it contrasted with the rest of the play, it was wonderfully effective theatrically in its own right. The rest of the second act was a return to the interior home set of act one. And even though the façade of the town interior and the tree branches of the glade were flown out, other parts of the settings had to be struck by hand for each scene change--that ground cloth for instance--and this certainly extended the length of the performance by a good ten to fifteen minutes all together while we sat and watched the stagehands going about their tasks.

The principal problem seems to be inherent in the script, although director Servillo might have missed the boat in not overcoming it. Plays that mix genres or shift from light comedy to serious drama can make it seem like you’re watching TV with someone switching channels back and forth on you. The parts don’t mesh and if the actors don’t get confused moving from one genre and style to the other, the audience can. The silliness undermines the serious points and the seriousness dampens the comedy. (Tragicomedy attempts to combine the funny and the serious, not so much to flip back and forth.) In addition, high comedy in a period play can work marvelously, as it does in Earnest (Wilde’s other comedies can display the problems of the mixed genres) or The Country Wife, say, but when you start to deal with everyday matters of a past decade, there’s a danger that the daily concerns of a distant time don’t really connect with a 21st-century audience. I don’t mean the deeper concerns that are signified by the daily ones; they’re often universal. I mean the activities and business of the stage life, the topics of conversation. A ten-minute scene of card-playing is enervating, and endless discussion of a new dress is . . . well, endless. (Okay, it didn’t help that these were during the speed-talking parts of the play.) Arlecchino and the Commedia use those kinds of concerns as excuses for physical hijinks and jokes, but Villeggiatura takes these as the stuff of real drama. It only takes a little of that to put me off, I’m afraid. I’m not sure what a director could do to alleviate the problem, though when he’s also the adapter of the text, there might be more options. Elisabeth Vincentelli of the Post blamed the problem on Servillo’s “too safe” approach, committing neither to the “zany” nor the “elegant.” I’m not sure I agree since that would only throw the competing parts of the production into starker contrast, but since I don’t know the answer myself, maybe Vincentelli’s right. I’ve often said that actors who direct themselves on stage--the movies are a different animal--often end up giving short shrift to one responsibility or the other. I wonder if that played a role here. I suspect that, at the very least, some additional cutting and compacting might have served the production better.

22 July 2009

Berlin Station, Part 2

[In Part 1, I laid out the background for the story I want to tell you and now, here’s the exciting conclusion . . . . “Secret agent man, secret agent man. They've given you a number and taken away your name.”]

The events of this story, which only took a few hours, were actually set in motion months earlier. Sometime in late 1971 or early 1972, an ex-GI named “Red” Kappel (I think his actual given name was Martin, but everyone called him Red anyway), now working in Berlin at the PX warehouse, got caught on the East German Autobahn between Berlin and West Germany with a car full of “refugees.” To complicate matters, he was driving his boss’s Caddy, and it turned out Kappel had paid him $500 dollars for the use of the car, implicating this high-ranking Civil Servant--he was a GS-12 or something, the equivalent of a major--in the mess. The Vopos turned Kappel over to the Soviets--the U.S. hadn’t yet recognized East Germany, so Americans, especially if they had some kind of official status, were not supposed to deal with officials of the GDR. The East Germans loved to ignore this just to tweak the Americans and force us to deal with them. In fact, after the Soviets took Kappel to Potsdam, their military headquarters in Germany, for a few days, they returned him to East German custody and he ended up in jail in East Berlin.

Military Intelligence interest began in this case because when Kappel had been a GI he had had a security clearance and when he first came to Berlin after he got out of the Army, he delivered pizza for a local restaurant, and one of his regular delivery stops was Field Station Berlin, a super-secret, mountain-top ASA electronic surveillance site. We eventually determined that he didn’t really have any info that the Soviets didn’t already have, but at the beginning we didn’t know that. Security questions set aside, the case became part of the tangle of diplomatic-military-political issues that made up the Cold War. An American had committed a crime on Soviet-controlled ground, and they were going to make as big a deal out of it as they could. My job was to find out who else was involved and how far the participation of any official Americans, GI and civilian, went. Remember, the people running this business were about as nasty as anyone could be and the generals didn’t want any of their people in bed with them. And smuggling people across the East-West border by people associated with the U.S. government was clearly a provocation to the Russians at a time when that was a dangerous button to push.

We already knew about Kappel’s boss, the warehouse manager. To find out if anyone else was involved we monitored the mail at Kappel’s home and had his phone tapped. (The rules for this were a lot easier in Germany, and within the military community--and in occupied Berlin, that included civilian employees like Kappel anyway--it was at the discretion of the USCOB. In Berlin, the three Western generals had supreme authority, though they seldom exercised it over Germans or Americans with no official connection.) Now, Kappel, like many GI’s, had married a German woman. Beside the fact that she wasn’t a U.S. citizen, a circumstance always considered a potential security risk, nearly every West German had family in East Germany. Family in the East was a pressure point the East Germans and Soviets were never reluctant to use. Helene Kappel was very vulnerable now, with no income and her connection to the American community and its safety net severed; there was no telling what she might do. In addition, before her marriage to Red, Helene Kappel had been a prostitute. I can tell you, I learned some interesting German from her mail and the phone tap because when she ran out of money, she went back to her old profession. She also made contact with the people who had hired her husband to drive the refugees to West Germany (actually they contacted her) and she began to recruit more drivers and car-owners for the organization. As a result of our operation, we pulled the lid so tight on the exfiltrators that the use of a car went up from $500 to several thousand, and drivers were getting $10,000 and more; Helene Kappel herself was promised a Mercedes for just recruiting people.

While all this was going on, though, Kappel was just sitting in an East Berlin jail. I was on 24-hour call and couldn’t leave my BOQ without telling the duty agent in the office where to reach me and calling in every hour or so. (Remember: no cell phones in the 1970s.) My parents came to Berlin for a visit during this time, and they were very impressed at how important I seemed to be because while we were out wandering around the city, I kept ducking into Stubes and bars to use the phone. Of course, I couldn’t tell them what was going on, but they were very impressed nevertheless.

All this time, of course, I was writing reports on everything we were learning about the exfiltrators and their operations, as well as the contacts Helene Kappel was making and everything else related even remotely to the investigation. I attended high-level briefings with colonels and generals and ministers (the foreign service rank just below ambassador). I was generally the only junior officer in the room. I’d have been impressed myself, if I hadn’t been so scared of making a mistake. I’d previously had a run-in with the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, a bird colonel, over another incident I hadn’t handled the way he wanted me to. (I wasn’t in his chain of command, fortunately, and even more fortunately, I had been right, and my CO backed me up. Still, the DCSI didn’t like me, and we both knew it.) I learned at these briefings that my reports were going to the State Department and being read by Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State at the time. I even had intimations that some of my stuff was going to the White House. This was a really big deal, and I was the point man.

Many of these meetings, by the way took place in a secret room at USCOB. Do you remember Get Smart, the spy-spoof sit-com starring Don Adams? (The TV show, not the later movie spin-off.) Do you remember the Cone of Silence? Well, this room was the real-life Cone of Silence. It was a room suspended inside another room, designed to thwart bugging. After I finished being impressed, I couldn’t stop thinking of Maxwell Smart, Agent 99, and Control under that big plastic cone, shouting at each other. It was sometimes all I could do not to giggle. Trust me, a lieutenant doesn’t giggle in a briefing with colonels and generals. It’s a breach of military etiquette.

Obviously, at one point there ceased to be much more we could do. Kappel had been caught red-handed (pardon the expression), so there was no denying his guilt. Except for trying to roll up the exfiltration operations, which we eventually pretty much did, there wasn’t anything left to investigate. Getting Kappel released became a diplomatic function, so the case went cold except for monitoring sources for word of his whereabouts and potential release. Everything pretty much went back to normal (which at Berlin Station was frequently hectic and crazy anyway). I went back to my regular duties and was no longer on 24-hour call except when I was my section’s duty officer in the regular rotation. And that’s when it happened.

I was on call one evening, and I was just hanging out at my BOQ. Sometime around 7 in the evening, the Duty Agent, who spends the night in the Station to take calls and answer the alert phone, phoned me at home to come in and take a call. My unit was not covert; we were low-profile and wore civilian clothes so others couldn’t distinguish the officers from the NCO’s, since as Special Agents we all were supposed to have the same authority in the field, but we didn’t disguise who and what we were. For this reason, we were the first contact anyone gets when they come looking to get in touch with American intelligence. (The older, World War II generation often asked for the OSS or the CIC; the younger guys wanted the CIA. They all got us.) As a result, we often got nuts calling or walking in with all manner of strange reports to make. (One guy told me in all seriousness that the Soviets had agents on the moon and that he was in “eye television”--Augenfernseh--contact with them, so he could tell us what they were up to. Another said that the Soviets were leaving poisoned cigarette butts on the streets so that GI’s would pick them up, smoke them, and get sick. To prove this, he had brought little bottles of his own blood, which he carried around with him in a tote bag.) This call was one of these--a guy who thought that a recent photo of a wanted Baader-Meinhof member in the newspaper looked like his wife’s brother-in-law (or something). I talked the guy down, thanked him, and got rid of him. But as I was preparing to go back home, the phone rang again and the Duty Agent passed it on to me. The man on the other end said he was Red Kappel, that he had been released in West Berlin, and he wanted to meet someone. Well, this didn’t sound kosher. Our latest information was that Kappel was still in the East Berlin lock-up, and while it was possible that the East Germans might release him suddenly and without notice, it was highly unlikely. They were all making too much hay out of holding him. (Kappel’s eventual release was almost certainly a direct result of Nixon’s trip to Moscow. If they were working at that level, letting him go unannounced, with no bargaining or propaganda, would be pretty silly on their part.) And even if he had been released that way, why would he call Military Intelligence? Not his wife, not his boss, not the guys who hired him (and probably hadn’t paid him yet), not some friends. Still, I couldn’t just ignore the call. I arranged to meet “Kappel” at the PX snack bar across the street. It was about 8 p.m. now, and the place closed at 9, so it would be neutral, safe, but somewhat private. We made a date for a short time later.

Now, because this case fell between all the floorboards of military investigations--it wasn’t a security matter, it wasn’t a military crime, and since none of the people involved were GI’s, it wasn’t even a breach of military regs--we shared the case with the military detectives, the CID. I had a CID counterpart, Karl-Heinz Wiedermeyer, a German-born, naturalized American. A warrant officer (not quite an officer, no longer a non-com), Wiedermeyer didn’t want to be on this case any more than I did. He also shared with his CID and MP colleagues a tendency to overreact whenever something got a little spooky. One whiff of spy stuff, and military cops sometimes went off half-cocked. Not that I was so cool, with my vast experience in counterespionage. (I once got into some trouble with my CO because I lost my cool when I got stuck with an inoperable radio when I was doing security for Gen. Westmoreland. I started cursing over what I thought was a dead radio, but it was only broken at my end. They could hear me perfectly well back at base, and cursing on the air is a major RTO no-no. So much for cool under pressure.) I was, however, at least trained for this stuff. Wiedermeyer wasn’t. He was a cop, not a spook--intelligence agents are spooks; I was a spook. Anyway, I called Wiedermeyer and, because his office was on a compound in another borough of the city, we decided that I’d go meet “Kappel” and my partner would join us later. So I went on across Clayallee to the PX complex, and went into the snack bar.

The PX snack bar was a cafeteria. This one was nearly all glass, with windows all around the two exterior walls, and the entrance from the corridor in a completely glass wall. (The fourth side was the food counter and the kitchen.) At 8 o’clock in the evening, an hour before closing, there’s virtually no one there except the workers closing up. As I entered, I saw one lone guy sitting at the opposite end of the room. He was at a table, with his hat pulled down sort of ’40s style, and he was buried in the brigade Daily Bulletin. Every military post puts this out, with all the announcements, official and unofficial, and its a couple of pages long, printed--mimeographed in those days--on legal-sized paper. A guy in a slouch hat, poring over the DB looks pretty silly, believe me. The only other people in the snack bar were the cooks and servers cleaning up behind the counter and one teenager turning the chairs up onto the tables in the main part of the room. Obviously, the guy with the DB was my guy--but he wasn’t Red Kappel. I’d seen enough pix of him over the months of investigation to know what he looked like, and this guy was ten years too old, ten pounds too heavy, and a good six inches too sort. And even with the hat, I could see that his hair was not red (Kappel didn’t get his nickname for nothing). I had to talk to the guy in any case. Even with all the deception, he might actual know something we should know. I doubted that, but I had to make a report anyway, so I had to find out what he wanted.

I crossed the room and went up to the guy’s table. I stood across from him, but he didn’t look up from the DB. Christ, I thought, the guy’s gonna play Sam Spade or something.

“Are you looking to talk to someone?” I said.

“You CIA?”


“You got ID?” He still hadn’t looked up.

“No. Do you want to talk, or not?”

“OK.” I sat across from him. “I hear the Reds got one of our guys.”

Oh, God. He’s a John Bircher or something. Where’s this gonna go? “Where’d you hear that?”

“Around. I work in the EES beverage shop. The word's out.” He meant the European Exchange System, the parent organization for the BX’s, PX’s, and other retail outlets in Europe. The warehouse where Kappel worked was part of this same system.

“OK. Why’d you want to see us?”

“I got a brother-in-law--well, my wife’s brother-in-law--in the East. He’s a party member, but he don’t like it there. I can go over and get him to find out where they’re holding Red.”

“Ah, no, that wouldn’t be a good idea. We really know where Red is, anyway. But thanks for offering.”

Somewhere about here, I saw Wiedermeyer, the CID investigator, look in through the glass doors across the room. It was near closing now, and all the activity in the snack bar had pretty much ceased. There was only our James Bond wannabe and me in the room, and that teen mopping the floor. But Wiedermeyer looked around, didn’t come in, and left. What the hell, I figured, this isn’t important and I’ll just fill him in later, after I talk this guy down and send him home. I was a little afraid, considering how ditzy the guy was, that he might be armed and if I signaled Wiedermeyer across the room, the guy might lose it or something. It wasn’t worth the chance under the circumstances. I let Wiedermeyer go without making a move or saying anything.

“Well, what if I go over and get my wife’s brother-in-law to help me break Red out. We could go over and get him before anybody knew. My wife’s brother-in-law”--he never used the man’s name, it was always “my wife’s brother-in-law”--”has clearances. He knows stuff, and he can find out things.”

“Fine. But don’t do anything until we get back to you. I have to report to my superiors, you know, and they’ll let you know. Promise me you’ll wait until you hear from me.”

“Sure. But I want to help. We can’t just let them get one of our guys like that.”

Jesus, this guy’s gonna do something dumb, I know it. He’s seen too many spy flicks. “Of course not. We’re doing things right now, don’t you worry. Believe me, we’re not just sitting on our hands here. Just don’t do anything without hearing from us. You might get in the way of another operation, you know. Don’t even talk to your wife’s brother-in-law yet. Just wait.”

“Sure. I understand. But you’ll get back to me. I’m ready to do something. I know I can trust my wife’s brother-in-law.”

I stood up then, and pointed out that the snack bar was closing up. I walked him out and across the street. We stopped in front of the entrance gate to the compound. “Now, remember, you promised not to do anything until you hear from us. Right? Don’t even go to the East until then.”

“Right. I gotcha. I’ll wait to hear from you.” He walked away toward the small compound nearby where the EES beverage store was, and where I imagined his car was parked. I watched him go until he turned the corner, then went into the headquarters compound and into Berlin Station. When I entered the Station, there were three people in the Duty Agent’s little office and the phones were all ringing. The DA was there, Wiedermeyer, and another agent from the Station who, it turned out, just happened along and got drafted. “Wiedermeyer, where the hell did you go? Why didn’t you come into the snack-bar? I saw you look in, but you left right away.”

“I, uhh . . . . What the hell are you doing here?”

“I work here! What’s going on?”

“Where were you?” asked the DA.

“Right where I said I was going to be. What’s this all about?”

“Wait a minute, let me call off the dogs,” said Wiedermeyer. (This dialogue is reconstructed from my fading memory, and a lot of it is paraphrased. But not this line. Those words I remember as clear as day.)

After a second’s hesitation, the three started dialing and talking again, very frantically.

"What do you mean, ‘Call off the dogs’?”

“I didn’t see you in the snack-bar. I thought you got grabbed. We’ve called your CO, my CO”--that’s the Provost Marshal, the chief of police on a military base--“the USCOB, the Brigade Commander, and the DCSI. We’ve put out APB’s on you, Kappel, your car, and the Caddy Kappel was driving. They’re shutting the whole city down.”

“Jesus, Wiedermeyer, did you overreact! I was right where I said I’d be. The only thing was, when I got there, I found out it wasn’t Kappel at all, of course. It was just some nut from the EES. He heard through the grapevine that Kappel got picked up in East Germany, and he wanted to go over and bust him out. He was a little hinky, so when I saw you peek in, I didn’t want to signal. Since it wasn’t Kappel or anyone important to the case, I figured I’d tell you later.”

“Well, I wasn’t looking for you, actually; I was looking for Kappel. When I didn’t see him, I just naturally assumed . . . .”

At this moment, Col. Collins arrived. He had already been on his way when the DA called to head him off. Besides, with the DCSI and two generals informed that I’d been kidnaped, he figured he’d better be in the Station to settle the flap. Unfortunately for me, the DCSI was also on his way in. The generals, at least, had been caught in time.

Col. Collins picked up a phone and made several calls. I was still watching this whole scene in amusement and disbelief. After all, I hadn’t done anything. Was it my fault that Wiedermeyer had jumped to conclusions and overreacted?

“Well, the shit’s gonna hit,” said Collins. “The DCSI wants to see us in his office at USCOB. The PM’s closed the checkpoints and stopped the military train. The military part of Tempelhof’s been closed, too.” That was the Berlin airport (since closed), part of which was a U.S. Air Force Base. “They got the French and the Brits to lock down their sectors also, and the PM’s been on to the German agencies to shut down the civilian crossing points and exits as well. It took about half an hour to shut the city down. It’ll take hours to open it all up again. The DCSI’s gonna be pissed.” (Did I mention, the DCSI didn’t like me?)

“But why at me, Sir? I was right where I said I’d be, doing just what I was supposed to do.” I knew the DCSI was just looking for a reason to chew my tail again. Would Col. Collins back me again this time?

Well, the DCSI did light into me. At least he started to. And Col. Collins pointed out right away that the flap had not been caused by anything I had done. The DCSI backed off, but he was clearly not happy about that.

As we left the DCSI’s office, Col. Collins told me, “When I first heard that you were kidnaped, my first fear was that you had your creds with you.” Those were our MI badges and ID cards. “Then I wondered if you had a weapon.” I looked at him a moment. He was really more worried about my boxtops and my .38 than about my safety. How comforting.

As far as I know, the city untangled itself and was back to normal by morning. I doubt anyone outside the Station, the Provost Marshall’s Office (the military cop shop), and USCOB really knew what had happened. Probably some travelers had been inconvenienced--mostly military ones, since the civilian stuff probably never got closed before the all-clear came down--but they probably never learned why. Anyway, I’m the only person I know who’s had a city shut down for him. Kinda makes me proud to be an American.

On the other hand, did you ever hear how the mayor of Philadelphia threw my father out of town? Well, that’s another story for another time.

19 July 2009

Berlin Station, Part 1

A short time ago, I wrote about an old German TV miniseries, Der Illegale. At the beginning, I mentioned that I was posted to West Berlin as an Army counterintel officer in the early ‘70s. About four years ago, I put together a somewhat haphazard--that is, stream-of-consciousness--memoir of the two-and-a-half years I spent as a Military Intelligence officer in Berlin at the height of the Cold War. Here is an account of one incident at the center of which I found myself.

First, a little background.

Berlin in the 1970’s was the hub of every espionage enterprise in the Cold War world. In Berlin, like Lisbon in the World War II movies, everyone was spying on everyone else. There were easily thousands of espionage operatives of one kind or another in the city, on either side of the Wall; the U.S. alone probably had 2000 people posted there in some intel capacity. Assigned to the Military Intelligence station in Berlin as a counterespionage officer, I knew of incidents in which the Bulgarians were caught spying on the Czechs in East Berlin. (The Warsaw Pact wasn’t alone in this activity: we spied on our allies, too, and they on us. All those spies had to do something with their time!) Even the Chinese--the Chinese, for Pete’s sake--had agents in Berlin! It was like living in Casablanca. Not the city--the movie.

Joking aside, there was real danger. Fighting the Cold War could sometimes be as scary as the hot one going on in Vietnam. The ’70s was the height of the U.S.-Soviet antagonism, with Brezhnev and Nixon eying each other suspiciously over the border dividing the two Germanys. Minor incidents, especially along the Berlin Wall or at Checkpoint Charlie, the official military crossing point between the two halves of the city, were frequent, and minor incidents could escalate--an appropriate term liberated from the shootin’ war in Southeast Asia--into major ones with Kafkaesque suddenness. GI’s touring East Berlin--a practice encouraged by the Army as a way of “showing the flag” in the still-occupied city--could be arrested for supposed infractions and whisked off to Potsdam, the Soviet military headquarters, just to provoke a response. Supply trains crossing East Germany to provision the military stores of West Berlin, which many people never realized was an island 110 miles inside the German Democratic Republic, were arbitrarily stopped and held for anywhere from hours to days. Shots were fired at or near Checkpoints Charlie or Bravo (the crossing point between West Berlin and the GDR, on the city’s western border) several times a month.

At the same time, this was a period of fierce anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism all over Western Europe. Anarchists like “Red” Rudi Dutschke and the infamous Baader-Meinhof gang, formally known as the Red Army Faction (or, ironically, the RAF), were planting bombs and kidnapping German businessmen at an alarming rate. A man I had met, a U.S. Army captain stationed in Frankfurt, was killed by one of these bombs, leaving behind a wife and two pre-teen daughters. Paranoia was so high that all cars entering the Berlin Brigade headquarters compound, a former facility of the Luftwaffe on Clayallee, were thoroughly searched, with huge wheeled mirrors shoved under the chassis to examine the undercarriage for explosives. During one surveillance operation to which I was assigned, I pulled the graveyard shift--midnight to 8 a.m. The place we were watching was in Kreutzberg, a remote borough of Berlin, and we had to drive there from Dahlem, the section surrounding the headquarters compound and most of the living quarters. Because American cars were easy to spot on Berlin streets--I owned a candy-apple red, 1970 Ford Torino fastback, my college graduation present from my parents--we had to use “spy cars.” These were “indigenous” vehicles, usually VW’s or German Fords, with interchangeable license plates: green “USA” plates with black numerals that looked like those on the private cars (POV’s) of GI’s stationed in Germany, and long, thin, black-lettered white plates of Germany. (Official Army vehicles--GOV’s--such as staff cars, bore yellow plates; miltary vehicles, like trucks and jeeps, did not have plates as such; they had painted registration numbers instead.) These cars were parked in a lot in the rear of the headquarters compound, but we had to go to our office at the front of the compound to sign them out and pick up the keys, so we never drove back there in our own cars. We parked across the street from the front entrance, in an extra PX lot. After the PX complex closed, around 9 p.m., this lot was vacant, so we left our POV’s there, walked over to the office, signed out the GOV, got the keys and the appropriate plates, walked back to the GOV lot, installed the plates, and drove out the rear exit of the compound. No problem. We did this all the time when we used a GOV. But this time, while I was off at the surveillance location, sometime during the early morning, the MP’s patrolling the headquarters area got suspicious. What was this car doing abandoned in the PX lot so long after the shopping complex had closed? Maybe it’s wired with explosives? Better check it out!

Well, of course, as a Military Intelligence officer, my POV registration was classified, so no trace of the owner could be found in local records. (First of all, this was in the days before computers. Second, POV’s of MI personnel were registered out of Munich--the headquarters of MI in Germany--and, third, their identifications were buried under layers of classification. A registration check by local MP’s in Berlin leads to a series of dead ends. The same was true of our private phone numbers at home.) Obviously, a car with no ID, left in the parking lot late, with no one around to claim it, must be a bomb. If the commotion that ensued had not been noticed by a colleague in my unit (located right at the front of the compound, with a view of the PX grounds across the street), my car would have been, at best, towed off to an impound lot and stripped down or, worse scenario, blown up on the spot. Of course, no one could tell me all this while I was on surveillance--radio traffic was restricted to operational use--so I never heard about this near-loss until I got back to sign out sometime after 8 the next morning. By then, it was all a joke, but it almost wasn’t. Paranoia--it’s a wondrous thing!

Besides politics, there was also just plain old crime. Berlin, like most big cities, had a crime problem in the ’70s, but it was complicated by a number of aspects. Because it was a relatively easy place to get to from Western Europe, and only slightly less easy to get to from the East, and access back and forth could be arranged with a little know-how, resourcefulness, and cash, smuggling was a big deal in Berlin. Now, I’m not just talking about some dope or a few sparkling baubles or rare artworks--though these crossed back and forth pretty often, too. No, Berlin’s smuggling trade included guns, explosives, hot money, documents--and women. Believe it or not, white slavery was still going on through Berlin in the ‘70s. And the people most in control of all this smuggling were Turks. Berlin’s organized crime, the equivalent then of its Mafia (although more comparable to the Colombian drug gangs of the ‘80s), was predominantly Turkish. And these guys could be vicious. Just before I arrived in Berlin in July 1971 there had been a pitched battle on the streets of downtown West Berlin between the police and one Turkish gang. The gang had been armed with machine guns and military weapons--the same stuff they were transshipping back and forth across the East-West border. Now, nothing like that happened again after I got there, but the possibility kept everyone a little on edge, especially when we had to hang around in a low-rent part of town like Kreutzberg (which, as it happens, was also a largely Turkish district). MI agents were not generally armed, despite what you see in the movies. I had my heart in my throat more than once when out on an operation.

So, that was Berlin in the early ’70s when I was assigned there to Berlin Station of the 66th MI Group. The trade-off was that Berlin was still officially under military occupation, so GI’s, as well as our French and British counterparts, had some perks. Uniformed soldiers (which didn’t include MI personnel--we wore civvies) could ride the buses and subways for free. Part of the occupation agreement with the Germans after the war required them to supply housing for the occupying troops, but since much of the city had been destroyed by bombings, most of this housing was newly built. Whereas bachelor officers in, say, Frankfurt or Munich might get quarters with a bedroom and a sitting room, a shared bathroom, and a small refrigerator (but no kitchen--they ate in the mess or at the O-club), single officers assigned to Berlin lived in one-bedroom garden apartments. Married enlisted men and woman got modern apartments in highrises, and more senior officers with families had houses in little suburb-like developments. All fully furnished, equipped--and free. Berlin had the best PX, the commissary got the best supplies, and our officers’ club was the finest anywhere in NATO. The NCO club was as good as most O-clubs elsewhere, and better than many. The recreation facilities, including the Wannsee resort, drew generals and high-ranking civilians from all over Europe, and it was all free. It didn’t hurt, of course, that we had two generals in Berlin, a one-star who was commander of the Berlin Brigade--the fighting troops--and a two-star who was the U. S. Commander of Berlin (USCOB), the military governor of the American sector. (The Brits and the French had generals, too, of course. Berlin probably had the highest concentration of general officers anywhere outside the Pentagon or maybe Brussels.) One irony of my service there was that I was entitled to wear the same Germany Occupation Medal that my dad, an artillery battery commander when the Allies were fighting their way across Western Europe after D-Day, got for serving in Germany after VE Day twenty-five years earlier. There was something time-warpish in that.

Yep, life in West Berlin could be good, if you ignored the fact that you were encircled by a wall and prohibited from leaving just whenever you wanted to. A GI in Frankfurt could get leave, hop in his car, and drive off in any direction for a few days’ outing. He could get on a train and visit Munich, Hanover, Hamburg, even Vienna or Rome or Paris. In Berlin, you couldn’t leave the city without advanced planning and special orders (called Flag Orders) for crossing the borders. People with high security clearances like me were restricted from traveling by any means other than the military trains (including the British and French ones, but not the German civilian Bundesbahn), military planes, or Pan Am. The reason for this last restriction was that Pan Am was the only civilian airline to agree never to land in East Germany or any Soviet Bloc country, no matter what. Air France and BOAC, which both flew to Berlin in those days along with Lufthansa, would not--rather sensibly, it seemed to me--make such a pledge, so we were prohibited from flying them into or out of Berlin. We were not even allowed to drive to West Germany for more than a year after I arrived in Berlin when those restrictions were eased a little. (By the time I went to Bad Ems in 1972 for the MAD-Schule, we could drive out, with a few restrictions.)

This struck all of us as something of a bleak joke, of course. Much like the game we played on “alerts,” those little exercises military units go through regularly to practice for emergencies (read: “war”). Like elsewhere, each unit in Berlin had an assigned task “in the event of hostilities.” Ours was to secure certain important people and get them to evacuation points, then round up “undesirables” for internment. Now, think about this. West Berlin, a city of some two-and-a-half million people, with an American military force amounting to an oversized brigade with maybe a score of tanks (an enhanced company), a smaller contingent of British and French soldiers, no German troops (except for the police, who received infantry training), surrounded by a Soviet tank army. Not a brigade or even a corps--an army. And that doesn’t count the East German forces, or any other Warsaw Pact troops stationed in the GDR. What the hell were we going to do if the Soviets decided to launch the balloon? Fight? Whom? All the Russians would have to do, we reminded ourselves, was roll up to Checkpoints Charlie and Bravo, post a few guards--we were already surrounded by a wall--and put up a sign, “Berlin POW Camp,” and then go around the city without firing a shot. You had to laugh, otherwise . . . .

Well, that was the situation I entered when I got to Berlin as a first lieutenant in July 1971--my first actual duty assignment. I had an ROTC commission (a good way to stay in school in those days), a couple of months of training as an armor officer at Ft. Knox; a year of Russian language classes at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California--I spoke German and French from having lived in Europe during high school; and three or four months of MI officers’ school at Ft. Holabird in Baltimore. (A hole if there ever was one; after the army abandoned it right after my class graduated, it was used as a prison for the Watergate crew. They were well and truly punished, believe me.) Anyway, now I arrived in Berlin days before the tenth anniversary of the erection of the Berlin Wall, Friday, 13 August. As an initiation to Berlin in the Cold War, my first job at Berlin Station was to be part of the unit’s surveillance of the protests planned for the anniversary. We called this “demo coverage,” and we just observed to see who came out and who said what. This one was a big deal, of course, given Berlin’s political status at the time. Not only would there be one march, but there were going to be two, one by the rightists protesting the wall (Die Mauer muß weg!) and one by the leftists supporting it and the Workers’ Paradise to the east (Besser rot als tot!). The two marches started in different parts of the city, but they were aiming for the same spot, the saddest place in the city: the Peter Fechter Memorial. Peter Fechter was a 18-year-old kid who was shot trying to flee East Berlin sometime shortly after the wall went up. He wasn’t killed outright, but he lay wounded in the no-man’s land controlled by the machine guns of the Vopos in their towers. (The Wall was really two walls about 100 yards or so apart, creating an empty strip of terrain between them--the so-called death strip.) The boy bled to death within sight of the East German guards and the West Berliners who witnessed the attempted escape but couldn’t reach him because of the guards’ guns. After Fechter’s death, a memorial was built on the Western side of the Wall at the site of his attempt. This had become a focal point for all demonstrations relating to the Wall, and on this day, both marches were on their way to the memorial at the same time. It didn’t take military intelligence to guess what was going to happen when the two groups met there. And we knew one thing for sure: if violence did erupt, do not get caught between the leftists and the rightists, or between either group and the police.

Here I was, then, what we called “a civilian TDY to the Army.” (TDY was the military abbreviation for temporary duty, but it was often used in conversation to mean “on temporary assignment.”) Furthermore, my only contact with cops had been traffic officers and the highway patrol. But, let me tell you, these Berlin police were impressive. Remember, I had just come from the States where police departments and national guard units had fired on demonstrators. Kent State hadn’t been too long before my arrival in Berlin. And here I was in the land that invented militarism. But these guys were superb--controlled and professional. (Because the occupation agreement prohibited German military in Berlin, the police received basic military training.) At the first sign of violence--one guy from one of the marches took a swing at someone in the other group with the wooden post from his protest sign, and some bottles and rocks started to fly--the cops closed ranks with their huge plexiglass shields in front of them, like a moving wall, and simply cleared the street. (They also had the biggest dogs I ever saw.) They just swept everyone into the subway entrances. The protesters had two choices: stay underground in the subway station, or get on a train and go somewhere else. No overreaction, no clubs, no guns, no cursing. Just swoosh, and the streets were clear. They only moved when violence became imminent, after the opposing groups met near the memorial, and they treated both sides the same.

Of course, we dashed behind the police lines as soon as this all started. We had a special password we shouted as we ran toward the cops, and they let us through to safety before things got too hot. That was my introduction to West Berlin. (And if I didn’t like that, there was always ’Nam waiting, usually the next stop for officers assigned to Europe at that time. Most of my predecessors had stayed for 18 months or two years, got home leave for a couple of months, then shipped out to Vietnam. In those days, the life expectancy of an MI lieutenant in Vietnam was estimated at 5 minutes after he hit the tarmac in Saigon.)

So that’s where my head was at when I started out on the events that resulted in the Army closing down the city of West Berlin. But it wasn’t my fault. Really. As they used to say in the old television show, the following story is true. None of the names have been changed, however, innocent or not. The initiating incident was “exfiltration,” a problem unique to West Berlin. This was the process of helping Easterners escape into West Berlin or West Germany and it was a sensitive situation involving both military and diplomatic actions, not to mention involvement of our French and British counterparts and several German agencies. In the years immediately following the war and the partition of Germany, exfiltration was an official, if clandestine, project of the U.S. government to bring out scientists, engineers, and other useful and high-profile people. By my day, most of those kinds of people who wanted to leave had been brought out, so the U.S. disbanded the operation. In the vacuum, private entrepreneurs assumed the task--for a fee, of course. The folks connected with this process were the same bad guys who controlled the smuggling.

By happenstance, I had become the Station expert in exfiltration and was called in whenever a case seemed to touch on it, hence my involvement in the story you’re about to read. Because of reports that I wrote on exfiltration, including ultimately a large book with illustrations, charts, and diagrams which was in demand by agencies both American and foreign (we had to make up a sanitized version for them) all over Berlin and the Federal Republic, my CO, Lt. Col. Pat Collins, took to calling me “Collins’ Commando” whenever he saw me around the Station. (Yes, I was embarrassed, but he was a light colonel and I was only a first looie--and the new boy in town as well--so what was I going to do, tell him to stop?) Most cases were small matters, investigated quickly and disposed of without much effort. One time, however, I hooked a big one.

[I’ll leave off here for the time being and pick up with the incident itself in Part 2. Tune back in for all the excitement and derring-do. (Fade-out as “Secret Agent Man” plays over the credits.)]

15 July 2009

'Les Éphémères' (Lincoln Center Festival 2009)

Like Katona’s Ivanov, the Théâtre du Soleil’s two-part, seven-hour Les Éphémères at the Park Avenue Armory also opened on 7 July, the first day of the Lincoln Center Festival. Scheduling conflicts meant that my theater companion, Diana, and I couldn’t attend Part I, so we elected to see Part II alone; according to the company’s publicity, each part could be viewed by itself, and that turned out to be true. So, on Wednesday, 8 July, Diana, her sister, and I met at the Armory entrance at 67th and Park and took in the nearly three-and-a-half hour performance directed by the company’s founder, Ariane Mnouchkine. The performance took place in the Armory’s Wade Thompson Drill Hall, a vast open space (200 by 300 feet and one of the largest unobstructed interiors in New York City) with a very high ceiling (69 feet). The playing area had been narrowed to a broad runway by the steep, narrow seating risers the company had built on two sides of the hall. Christopher Isherwood of the Times characterized the resulting space as “circus-like"--Joe Dziemianowicz of the Daily News saw an operating theater and church pews--but my impression was that it resembled a bullring. (Ironically, in the middle of Part II there is a scene in which an old man is teaching what appears to be his grandson some toreador techniques with a bull’s head on wheels while the boy wields the sword and red muleta. This was probably a coincidence, but the scene may have been the inspiration for the configuration.) At either end of the runway were wide openings covered by double drapes through which the chariots, the large wheeled platforms on which the individual scenes were mounted, entered and exited the playing arena. Above each entrance was a small balcony: the one over the east entrance was home to the lighting technician and his laptop-controller; the one over the west housed the musical ensemble. Jean-Jacques Lemêtre’s music, some live and some taped, in styles reminiscent now of Eastern, now of Western music, underscored the varying moods, though I sometimes found it distracting.

I have to say a few words about the chariots and the moving of the scenes because it was a remarkable achievement in its own right. It was very low-tech, since the means of locomotion was human--members of the ensemble pushed the chariots across the runway and rotated them to make all angles visible to all spectators. The platforms were square or round and some were quite large, say 10 feet across, and others relatively small, for one- or two-character scenes. Each was a complete set, designed by Everest Canto de Montserrat, from floor coverings to furniture to set dressing and props. (Some were quite crowded, like an over-furnished or messy room. Variety reported that some objects were contributed by members of the troupe.) The sets ranged from rooms in houses or apartments to entrance ways to offices and doctors’ examining rooms to outdoor scenes of various locations. In effect, they worked like a spotlight that has isolated a small section of a realistic place. I don’t know how many of the platforms there were backstage, or how many technicians and stage hands were back there setting them up for each new entrance, but they each had to be completely reset within minutes of the end of one scene, which often ended as one platform was moved off the opposite end of the runway as the new one entered at the other end. (From what I could tell at intermission, the two end areas, the off-stage spaces, weren’t large enough to house more than a couple of chariots each, so they must have had to be reset pretty continuously to keep the production moving smoothly--which it did beautifully. The logistics alone were impressive.) In most cases, the actors in the scene moved on in place on the chariots (though a few entered or exited on foot and stepped into the scene). Scenes were played almost entirely within the confines of the chariot, though a few scenes that moved from one chariot to another--a doctor exiting her office and entering a patient’s room, for instance--required an actor to step off the platform, walk across a short section of the runway floor, and step up onto a new platform.

This was all what you might expect from a company that’s worked on this kind of set-up before. (Le Dernier Caravansérail used similar moving platforms four years ago in Damrosch Park.) It just takes practice and concentration. More impressive to me was the technique of moving the platforms around the playing area. The company members who manipulated them, the “actor-pushers,” have to be especially agile, strong, and steady, and they have to have excellent control over their own bodies--and exceptional stamina. Dressed in dark work clothes and black sneakers, they worked a little like Kabuki stage assistants: you could see them perfectly well, but you treated them as invisible as they went about their task. As they rolled the platforms on stage, they almost crawled, though I noticed that their knees didn’t really touch the floor so they were pushing from a low crouch. When they reached the center (or, occasionally, some other spot on the runway) where the scene was to be performed, they nearly lay down on the floor on their sides, sometimes with their upper bodies raised and used their legs to propel the chariot around in a slow spin so that it could be viewed from all perspectives. (This is all very hard on the back and legs, I’d imagine--and there’s a physiotherapist on the production staff.) Isherwood compared this to a camera circling above the actors in a film. All of this was accomplished absolutely fluidly and silently--neither the actor-pushers nor the platforms made a sound of any kind. (Another thing I don’t know, of course, is the technology for constructing the chariots, especially the wheels. High tech or low, they are minor engineering feats.) While the acting and conception of Les Éphémères was a total joy, this part of the production was a small, fascinating theatrical accomplishment as well. I can’t quantify the contributions it made, but I will say that it enhanced the overall impact of the production.

The title Les Éphémères means “The Ephemerals” or “Ephemera.” It refers to the moments in life that are there briefly and then gone, lost to memory. Mnouchkine says that the ephemerals are “Human beings! We are the ephemeral.” According to company publicity, the original idea was to contemplate what you would do if the end of the world were imminent. That idea morphed into something much more general as the company worked on it. While Mnouchkine and her troupe used oral histories and records of immigrants, migrants, and refugees to compile the text for Le Dernier Caravansérail, the company’s last trip to LCF in 2005, this script seems to have been assembled in-house by the company members and Mnouchkine through improvisation and discussion--“and perhaps an old photo album.” I haven’t found anything that says so or not, but I imagine that a lot of the material was drawn from the memories, family lore, and experiences of the cast. Mnouchkine says in an interview excerpted in the program that there is no written text, so the script, too, is ephemeral. (This must be a metaphorical statement to an extent, since there were projected supertitles--not so hard to negotiate as recently with Ivanov--so a spoken text must have been set at some point in order for there to have been a translation rendered. Unless, of course, there were simultaneous translators backstage typing away furiously. Two “translators” are listed in the program.) What Mnouchkine, whose vision guides not only the whole Théâtre du Soleil but obviously steered the création collective for Les Éphémères, says the performance depicts “the present which is no longer the present when I say the word ‘present’ to you. . . . The play is made of the moments that have made us.”

The play, performed in French with English supertitles, takes place in France in the present--now--though many of the scenes--memories, really--go back to different parts of the past, from World War II to as recently as 15 year ago. Some of the scenes were connected, episodes in a longer narrative--the WWII scenes, for instance--and others were only one snapshot long. Some of the characters were younger and older incarnations of the same person. All the tales were personal--though some, like the ones that took place during the Nazi occupation, had larger implications. Some of the moments were one person’s memory, triggered by some stimulus like Proust’s madeleines; others were the collected recollections of participants or observers who pieced them together bit by bit. Some of the chain scenes did continue from Part I to Part II, but they were structured so that each part was, indeed, independently comprehensible. Only after I read some of the reviews, which covered both halves of the program, did I see how some of the stories I watched in Part II, which seemed self-contained, were continuations of stories begun the night before in Part I. The poignancy and greater implications of the scenes, whether continuations or one-offs, were not harmed by seeing only one part of Les Éphémères.

In fact, the length of the program--three hours and twenty minutes with an intermission during which cookies and water are served on stage by the cast--and the uncomfortable seating made me quite glad to have attended only half the production, even though what I saw on stage was exquisite. Too much of a good thing, you understand . . . . One reason for this response was that the stories themselves, whether long or short, were not so important, and more of them wouldn’t have made a difference in the impact of Les Éphémères overall, I don’t think. What impressed was the treatment of memories, reminiscences, passing moments, forgotten histories, and that was communicated brilliantly in one three-hour performance. (Caravansérail was much the same: it told stories, some small and some extended, of displaced people. The point was made just as strongly in Part I as in Part II; repeating it didn’t make it truer.) In fact, not all the stories were themselves very interesting dramatically; the arc of the whole evening was. (I come back to the presentation, which enhanced the theatrical success of the program by being so damn well conceived and executed. It was partly a case of the medium being the message.) The longest story, the search by a woman for the story of her grandparents and her mother’s childhood in the 1940s, was possibly the least engrossing. This was partly because we’ve all heard and seen this story told and retold many times. In Part II, the tale opened when the woman came to the state archives looking for some information on her grandparents, whom she knew only by name and a few scattered facts, and spoke to an archivist who eventually found some documents pertaining to their occupation before the war, their deportation when the Germans occupied France--they were Jewish--and their fate. I could have guessed what was going to be revealed, and many of the subsequent scenes of this history, which was threaded through the whole evening, were predictable as well. As an example of how this kind of background is pieced together one detail at a time and how one step can lead to another source of information, the arc was interesting, and the performances of the people in the story and the small moments of contact and memory were gorgeous--as was the acting all through the piece. There were 15 scenes in Part II (and another 14 in Part I), winnowed down from about 400; the company included 23 adult actors and 9 children (who rotated performances) playing nearly 80 roles in the two halves.

The most charming vignette, a single snapshot, was “You Live in My House,” in which a young woman, Claire (Delphine Cottu), is found hanging around the garden entrance to a house where she used to live as a child. The son (Sébastien Brottet-Michel) of the woman who lives there waves her away, but she stays until the daughter (Camille Grandville) arrives and lets her in. Claire wants to visit her old room and film the house. When she enters the sitting room and sees the current owner, an older woman who has suffered a breakdown (Juliana Carneiro da Cunha), Claire recognizes her as her second-grade teacher, Madame Dubris. We learn that Mme. Dubris has been incommunicative and agoraphobic since one of her students had been beaten to death by classmates in front of her. She never recovered from the shock and the inability to prevent the attack. For the first time since her breakdown, the old teacher becomes animated as she shows Claire around the house and Claire tells some of the stories about evidence of her old life left behind. It was a tiny little story, but a gem among the semi-precious stones. Like the other scenes, the acting was low-key, naturalistic, and stunning.

Another scene, one of the episodes in the tale of the search by Jeanne (Cottu) for her family’s history, shows a woman, Nora (Carneiro da Cunha), who is caring for the little Aline, Jeanne’s mother as a child, after the girl’s parents have been transported by the Germans. Nora asks Aline if she knows any prayers, and Aline recites a broche, but confesses she doesn’t know the meaning of the words. Nora teaches the girl the Lord’s Prayer in French, explaining each unfamiliar word and phrase so the child won’t just understand them as meaningless sounds. (Later, in an eerie echo, a Nazi occupier utters the Lord’s Prayer in German.) It’s clear that Aline and her family had been assimilated Jews, more French than Jewish. Maman probably lit the Sabbath candles and said the Friday prayers, so little Aline learned the sounds, but not the meaning of her religious heritage. That would hardly have been uncommon; but what it made me think of was a subject that has fascinated me for years. Not too many years ago there were reports of people in New Mexico, descendents of the Conquistadors who settled in New Spain in the 16th century, who discovered that they were also descended from Marranos, secret Jews who had fled the Inquisition. Their Jewish faith had long been lost to them; they all grew up considering themselves Catholic. Years before this series of self-discoveries, however, my father told a story of a colleague in the Bonn embassy who had taken a bicycle trip trough Spain. Forced to spend the night on the road after one leg of his journey, he stopped at a farmhouse. Before the evening meal, he watched as the woman of the house lit candles and mumbled some unintelligible words before the family sat down to eat. Realizing that it was Friday night, the traveler asked what the woman was saying. She admitted that she had no idea what the words meant, but that her mother and grandmother had always performed the ritual on Fridays, so she continued the practice. The family was Catholic, of course--this was the time of Franco when all other religions were outlawed--so the visitor didn’t say anything, but he understood that he was in the home of the descendents of Marranos whose real heritage had been lost to history. Ephemeral, indeed!

Once again, I was impressed with the ensemble playing of a company that has been together--the 70 members of Théâtre du Soleil practically live together--for decades. Ivanov called for some fireworks, but Les Éphémères was quiet and truthful, without flash or force. Even the children--especially the children--were controlled and solid, the whole ensemble like people you might have been eavesdropping on. Which, in fact, was what we were doing, wasn’t it? (Steppenwolf, for example, might be able to do this kind of work here, and I would like to have seen how the original cast of August: Osage County worked together before some of them were replaced. Les Éphémères does share something with AOC: both plays were created by actors--AOC by actor-dramatist Tracy Letts and Les Éphémères by a company of actors. This may well account for the nature of the roles in Les Éphémères and why they worked so well with a style that was almost what we used to call “studio acting”: real, honest, unfrilly, but small, intimate, quiet.)