THE VISIONS OF DER WUNDERKINDER: Peter Sellars' The Visions of Simone Machard

Something startling is happening in La Jolla, California, a quaint Republican community 4000 miles from the heartbeat of Broadway. The La Jolla Playhouse, a long-dormant summer stock outlet for the Hollywood community, has opened with a season of Brecht and Barrie Keefe, legendary performers from experimental theater and wunderkinder for days.

Founded in 1947 by Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, and Mel Ferrer, the theater occupies a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility under the direction of 30-year-old Des McAnuff, who made his name with several brilliant productions for the Dodger Theater Company, first at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and then at the New York Shakespeare Festival. On the spot where Groucho Marx once appeared in Time for Elizabeth, where Desi Arnaz discovered Vivian Vance in The Voice of the Turtle, where programs boasted the likes of Eartha Kitt, Dennis Hopper, and Cloris Leachman in The Skin of Our Teeth, McAnuff is directing John Vickery and Amanda Plummer in Romeo and Juliet and co-directing (with Jack Blum) Keefe's A Mad World, My Masters, a contemporary British sex farce with political overtones. To inaugurate the season, McAnuff turned to the ubiquitous young genius Peter Sellars, who mounted Brecht's rarely performed The Visions of Simone Machard designed by Adrienne Lobel and featuring Priscilla Smith, Ben Halley, Jr., Bill Raymond of Mabou Mines, and Werner Klemperer. This is not summer theater as we know it.

McAnuff and Sellars are a fascinating pair. Both are gifted, devoted theater artists who belong to a generation (a society? a historical moment?) that seems indifferent to theater. Both recently took a stab at the big-time that failed; McAnuff's excellent play-with-music The Death of Von Richtofen as Witnessed from Earth was erratically produced by the Public theater and tepidly received by critics, while Sellars's ambitious conception of the Broadway musical My One and Only evaporated when he was fired just before the production began previews in Boston. Perhaps in response to these setbacks, both took artistic directorships with low visibility but lots of responsibility, McAnuff in La Jolla and Sellars with the Boston Shakespeare Company.

Stylistically, however, these two young men are practically polar opposites. McAnuff's passions are rock and roll and working-class politics, yet his work is invariably lucid and beautifully controlled, which is not to say conventional. Sellars, who is immersed in classical music and formidably well-read, makes theater that is flamboyant, idiosyncratic, and frequently outrageous, which is not to say gratuitously weird. McAnuff tends to select material that is familiar and readily acceptable -- the story of Mary Stuart, Henry IV Part I, the history of world War I -- and then bring to it much more contemporary significance than an audience might expect. Sellars is more likely to select something completely bizarre than no one is dying to see -- a Kabuki western for deaf actors, Handel's Orlando (set in the Everglades), a verse drama by an obscure dead poet -- and make of it something exquisite and disarmingly entertaining. Collaborating in La Jolla has brought out the best in both of them, and I can't help feeling that the meeting of Des McAnuff and Peter Sellars marks a crossroads in the future of American theater.

The Visions of Simone Machard, which played in La Jolla June 25 to July 17, was, among other things, a triumph of dramaturgy. McAnuff wanted to open the theater with a Hollywood play from the '40s. His first choice was Born Yesterday, which he considered a subtly subversive play by a persecuted leftist (an interesting take on Garson Kanin). When the rights proved unavailable, he asked Sellars to direct Galileo, and Sellars suggested Simone Machard. The first play Brecht completed in Hollywood after narrowly escaping from Nazi Germany, Simone Machard is the story of a very young girl who reads a book about Joan of Arc and is inspired to do her part to fight the German occupation of France.

The play is in four scenes, each of which includes one of Simone's dreams or visions. Simone works as a kitchen maid and gas station attendant at Henri Soupeau's hostelry, which hoards supplies for its rich customers rather than sharing them with the village. With the Germans dangerously nearby, Simone convinces Soupeau and his aged mother to share their food with the villagers and to use their trucks to transport refugees. The owners' act is not one of principle, however, but of practicality -- to avoid looting. Madame Soupeau proves equally pliant when the Germans inevitably arrive, offering to turn over the hostelry's gas supply for the tanks. Simone, urged on by an angel (who clearly represents her beloved brother Andre, a soldier on the front lines), burns down the brickyard containing the fuel. Rather than punishing her for a political act, the officials decide to view it as the irresponsible act of a child and send her away to a mental institution run by brutal nuns. The villagers are not fooled. Responding to Simone's example, they torch the schoolhouse rather than allowing it to be used to quarter German soldiers.

Co-written with critic Lion Feuchtwanger, who later wrote a novelization of the play that was sold to the movies but never filmed, Simone Machard is often dismissed by scholars as unfinished or uncharacteristically "patriotic." But upon reexamination, and especially in Sellars's production, it turns out to be a great Brecht play -- one that captures the sorrow of the exile, the surrealism of a war refugee living in Hollywood's land of make-believe, the sympathy of a German Jew with the enemies of his countrymen, the power of art to inspire acts of moral courage, the unimaginable power of having a vision, the necessity (and perhaps futility) of having a vision in the theater.
Brecht's text offers numerous challenges to a director with its strange passages of "dream language" and the notion of having actors play both townspeople and the characters in Simone's dreams about Joan of Arc. Sellars solved these problems by making Simone's dream life the reality of the play. After the first scene, for instance, having learned how far into France the Germans have penetrated, Simone was left onstage alone. She hung a military-type shirt next to three bed sheets on a clothesline extending the width of the stage and then, grabbing the sleeves of the shirt, she began to dance with it as the clothesline slowly rose to the ceiling -- an inexplicably moving image that without words explained Simone's love for her brother and her understanding that he had already died in battle.

At other times, Sellars's dream-play approach was much bolder. Simone's second dream occurs after she has shamed her employers into their act of generosity but then been dismissed from her job; in the dream, she is knighted by the King of France but deprived of her sword. Sellars staged this dream sequence on a tension-grid catwalk that extended out over the front of the house so the audience had to look up and see the actors feet-first. Why? Because, I suppose, in a dream you see things differently, from odd angles and disorienting perspectives. Simone/Joan, in listening to the voices of angels and deciding to act on them, has "placed herself above others." Deserted by her colleagues, she flattened herself against the catwalk, trapped (you could say) by her own destiny.

This is Sellars's method of making his theater both intellectually and physically immediate -- you hear one thing and see another, so you have to think twice. His devices are simple, almost obvious like puns, yet they never overwhelm or obfuscate the play the way the extreme avant-garde stagings of Richard Foreman and Elizabeth LeCompte do (for their own good reasons). Like Lee Breuer in his legendary production of Lulu or Andrei Serban with his Three Sisters, Sellars achieved a superb convergence of thought and action, staging and text. 

The key to his production in La Jolla was the concentration of focus on Simone and the angel. Here the credit must be shared with Priscilla Smith and Ben Halley, Jr., who gave towering performances. The casting was preposterous -- a fortyish actress playing an 11-year-old, an enormous black man playing her teenage brother -- yet brilliant. Smith established herself as one of modern theater's great performers in Serban's Fragments of a Trilogy, capable of acting plain as dirt or summoning a scorching, demonic intensity. Halley is an equally charismatic and versatile actor -- I've seen him play everything from a jive preacher to a French-speaking poodle -- and he carried with him in this performance a Martin Luther King-like vision of black destiny, which again relates dramaturgically to Brecht. (Shortly after arriving in Hollywood, Brecht was asked to help write a film history of jazz, and his suggestions linking the story of jazz to the history of blacks in America were never taken. The film's financiers forced the director "to cut as many Negroes as possible, and to insert as much 'boy-meets-girl' as he can," Brecht noted in his diary.)

The chemistry between Smith and Halley under Sellars's direction brought the production to its most stunning moment at the end of the first act, after the scene in the catwalk where Simone/Joan is relieved of her duties. Slowly climbing down to the stage on a long stepladder, Smith called out for her angel in the most extreme, desperate, soul-wrenching vocalizing that can be done in a theater. Halley emerged from the depths of the stage, and they came to rest in a quiet spotlight front and center, facing out, he behind her, stroking her hair. "Should we go on fighting if the enemy has already won?" she asks him simply. "Is the night wind blowing?" he responds. "Isn't there a tree in the yard? Do its leaves rustle when the wind blows?"

This scene kept returning to me that night as I walked on the beach in La Jolla, brooding about the production, strangely disturbed. I was so impressed and awed at the imagination and talent and social engagement of these two guys my age -- McAnuff for having the guts to open his expensive, new theater in a conservative community with something as strong and difficult as this, and Sellars for insisting that theater can be both beautiful and useful, that it must have a vision of itself and of society. The world is in a crisis, it is heading for war, someone has to holler stop to global aggression and nuclear madness, we must do it ourselves rather than waiting for our leaders, the stories we tell each other can give us courage to act, and the theater can tell us the right stories. It seems a shame that a production as brave and intelligent as The Visions of Simone Machard should only play three weeks in a resort town at the bottom of California and then disappear, seen only by stray tourists and baffled retirees. McAnuff and Sellars are leaders, young people in the theater who talk about vision and the future of the world.

Who will follow them? Is anybody listening? Does anybody care? Young people, who can change the world, don't go to the theater. People in the theater are afraid of embarrassed or too anesthetized to talk about vision. So many of the plays that touch at all on the perilous state of the world today seem to yearn for apocalypse, to long for the end of this hard, cruel, exhausting thing called existence.

Should we go on fighting if the enemy has already won?

Is the night wind blowing?

Village Voice, August 9, 1983