nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
March 3, 2011
What Spy Garbo does well, it does very well—it’s a remarkable showcase of the powers of theatrical technology in the hands of a director who knows how to use it; it poses genuinely interesting philosophical questions. And if it were presented as a highly elaborate and creative history lecture, I’d call it a brilliant success. But as a piece of theatre, it’s too abstracted and diffuse; it fails to bring its characters to convincing life.
The players are all ambiguous figures from twentieth-century history, waiting in some sort of limbo or purgatory—an imaginary archive, gorgeously depicted in 360-degree video projections (by Aaron Harrow, Jeff Morey, and Peter Norrman) with aisles stretching away on all sides—to know the final place they’ll be filed in this storehouse of human memory. Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, World War I German Navy hero, was Hitler’s military intelligence chief—but was also the architect of a plot to kill Hitler, convicted of treason by the Third Reich, and ultimately hanged by the Gestapo. Harold Adrian Russell Philby, known as “Kim,” was a British Intelligence agent—but also a committed Communist who spied for Stalin’s Russia from the 1930s through his defection to the Soviet Union in 1963. And General Francisco Franco Bahamonde was the Nationalist general who won the Spanish Civil War and ruled Spain as a dictator until his death—but also succeeded in keeping Spain officially neutral during World War II and saving hundreds of thousands of potential victims from Hitler. The question for each becomes, Will I be remembered as hero or villain, traitor or patriot—and does the truth of my story really matter?
Although the three had some encounters in life—Philby was in Spain for the Civil War, undercover as a reporter; Canaris was at Franco’s 1939 meeting with Hitler—the real point of intersection for the three is a fourth man, the piece’s version of Godot (crucially awaited, never-arriving): Spy Garbo himself, Juan Pujol Garcia, a pro-British/Nazi double agent from Spain, whose misinformation was crucial to the Allied success at Normandy but whom the Nazis believed to the end to be a loyal agent. Garbo’s “files,” each believes, will contain the evidence that shows he was truly working for the “right” side all along.
Most of the play is made of up each of the three recounting his life story in turn, making a case for the correctness of his actions in front of history’s invisible auditors, buttressed with the documentary evidence shown in the projections. (Spy Garbo’s fascinating life story, recounted in the play’s final scene, serves as a kind of coda, a wistful acknowledgment of a “movie-perfect” spy loved by history without any special pleading.) Philby (Chad Hoeppner, charismatic and trying to seduce with his charm) explicitly sees the project as making a movie, placing himself in the best light as a film hero; truth is irrelevant compared to the image. The other two are more skeptical of this strategy, wanting to be genuinely understood by history, although Canaris (the steely and dignified Steven Hauck) is more weighed down by the contradictions of his story, and Franco more petulant about the refusal of the world to recognize his value (Steven Rattazzi has a great deal of fun with the pettiness in Franco). All three quibble with one another’s self-justifying representations; all three are finally forced to admit “real life is one grubby muddled mess,” with the consequences of their own actions unpredictable and not always as laudable as the original motivations.
It’s all heady, intellectually challenging stuff—but also tends to be loaded with exposition and curiously dispassionate in emotional coloration. Yes, the men talk about their lost loves, who are spookily brought to life as projections, but that almost seems like a detail added precisely to give them inner lives. All their genuine passions seem devoted to this retrospective task of protecting their legacy; we don’t ever really get a sense of them as people in the stories they tell about their past lives, only as figures who did important things.
And as exciting as the technology is, it doesn’t help with this sense of abstraction and distance. The projections, seamlessly combined with Marcelo Anez’s sound design, become not just set elements (the library, a jail cell, a theatre’s red curtains), but fully integrated by the designers and director Kevin Cunningham into the narrative—the evidence that the characters marshal, the movies of Philby’s imagination. The essentially bare stage becomes a limitless playing field, and Cunningham is adept at letting the technology serve the needs of the story. Not only do projections wrap around both stage and the audience seating area, there’s a projection plane between the audience and the performers, which creates an almost holographic effect—the men’s lost wives and lovers, crossing downstage of the actors; falling snow.
The downside of this, of course, is that there’s a projection surface—a pane of glass—between the audience and the performers, which creates a very literal barrier in a piece that was already struggling with its emotional register. (It also limits the possibilities for the actual staging, of course, by putting an obstacle in the center of the playing space.) I think, here, the tradeoffs are worth it—what the projections bring to the piece is both breathtaking and uncanny—but the negatives unfortunately overlap with the play’s flaws.
I was intrigued by Spy Garbo, and I certainly came away wanting to investigate whether some of the anecdotes playwright Sheila Schwartz told were true. But I’m not sure that’s enough for a piece of theatre to accomplish.