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The Rosendale Theatre Collective

Train Kept a Rollin&rsquo: Ödön von Horváth’s Judgment Day at Bard SummerScape by Jay Blotcher

Beach novel readers and hot-weather zombies, you might want to skip this story. Those who favor summer vacation as a rejuvenation for both body and mind will find numerous reasons to attend the annual SummerScape Festival and Bard Music Festival at Bard College.

In an era characterized by the dumbing-down of everything from politics to culture, SummerScape 2010 (July 8 through August 22) is a clarion call to the defiantly cerebral. If you seek an orgy for the brain, this seven-week schedule of theatre, film, opera, dance, classical music, discussions and cabaret—the latter at the beguiling mirrored Spiegeltent—is the multi-tiered, embarrassment-of-riches answer.

Each year, Bard selects an avatar of the classical music world, honors him by reviving his works and then builds out the schedule from there, staging the works of his contemporaries, mentors and influences. (Legends previously canonized by SummerScape include Dmitrii Shostakovich and Franz Liszt.) The man of the hour for 2010 is Austrian composer Alban Berg (1885-1935), a complex Romantic Modernist, and the protégé of the iconoclastic Arnold Schoenberg, the latter recognized as the progenitor of 20th-century classical music. Battling against the traditional confines of his Viennese education, Berg also produced works that broke with the musical traditions of the early 20th century. Some of his best works, both well-known and obscure, will be showcased at the upcoming 21st annual Bard Music Festival, in August.

Complementing this tribute will be works by fellow artists who thrived in his era, including the 1910 opera The Distant Sound (Der Ferne Klang) by Franz Schreker; The Chocolate Soldier by Oscar Straus, a 1908 operetta adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man; a film festival of the works of German expressionist G.W. Pabst, dance performances by Trisha Brown Dance Company (in collaboration with famed assemblage artist Robert Rauschenberg) and a staging of Judgment Day by Ödön von Horváth.

Judgment Day, presented in ten performances between July 14 and 25, was a gauntlet first thrown from the stage in 1937 by playwright von Horváth, an Austro-Hungarian cited as a premier stage writer in his era. The drama concerns a modest train conductor named Thomas Hudetz, who dutifully drives his route every day, a respite from an uninspiring and loveless marriage. On a routine ride, the man’s drab little world is suddenly enlivened by Anna, a pretty passenger. When this woman’s attentions distract Herr Hudetz, a fatal crash occurs.

Caitriona McLaughlin, director of the SummerScape production of Judgment Day, points to the heated milieu which produced von Horváth’s claustrophobic, tortured vision: he was living in Berlin, Germany at the time, watching the poisonous flower of Nazism take root and grow quickly, its progress ably abetted by the fearful yet apathetic populace. As Hitler’s might increased, von Horváth left for Vienna, only to have the jackbooted troops march into his adopted city, forcing him to flee for Paris, where he died accidentally at age 36.

In a telephone interview in early May, before the production was cast, McLaughlin explained why von Horváth’s vision holds such allure for this adventurous director.

Judgment Day, McLaughlin said, makes the theatergoer confront “the idea that people are generally kind of naively ignorant of what’s going on around them. It has a universal truth, whether in 30s Germany or in a wider context—a moral element.” Von Horváth’s work is too adroit to be a leadfooted morality play; it raises many thorny, irresolvable issues about personal responsibility and social obligations. This theme has appeared in the Irish director’s recent productions, which include Dave Duggan’s Still, the Blackbird Sings, an elegy for a soldier in 1917 who becomes a casualty of The Great War. (The show played in several theatres across Ireland earlier this year.)

The cast of Bard’s production of Judgment Day includes Kevin O'Donnell as Herr Thomas Hudetz; Stephanie Roth Haberle as his wife; Dashiell Evans as Alfons; Hayley Treider as Anna; Shawtane Bowen as Ferdinand; Craig Bockhorn as Landlord; Beth Cole as Leni; and Kelly McAndrew as Frau Leimgruber.

Of course, von Horváth’s scenario is not a facile one; he muddies the waters by challenging our notions of what guilt is. After the crash, the girl lies to the authorities about the chain of events in a desperate bid to protect Hudetz. The falsehoods grow, forcing collusion among otherwise decent citizens, until Anna’s treachery foments a crisis that curdles the moral code of the entire town. Even idle gossip, transmitted with pettiness and guile, von Horváth suggests, becomes a seedling for fascism. The subtext to the story is that simple people are ever-susceptible to such machinations.

“I’m really interested in how to draw those things out of the play,” McLaughlin said, “without overbalancing the play and putting too much emphasis on it and not enough on the naturalistic story of the stationmaster.”

Von Horváth, according to research by the director, wanted to alert people to encroaching fascism. Judgment Day is a manifestation of that mission, realized with an impressive restraint. Modern audiences can easily imagine the spirit of the small-mustachioed Austrian dictator lurking behind the scenes this complicated tragedy.

It is “the idea of culpability” that Judgment Day explores, McLaughlin said, “how you can be culpable for things by actively knowing them and not even acknowledging them and allowing them to go on.” It is a theme articulated most succinctly by 18th century Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke, who is credited for the enduring axiom, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

Ödön von Horváth's Judgment Day will be perfomed at Theater Two, Richard B. Fisher Center, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson,, 845.758.7900. We & Su 7/14,18, 21, 25 3 PM, Th/Fr/Sa 7/15-17, 7/22-24 8 PM

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