Two brothers are driven to extremes in Friedrich Schiller's play, "The Robbers." Pictured from left: Scot Davis, Colleen Lanki and Ken Uehara.

Grand stage
for political strife

'The Robbers'

Where: Kennedy Theatre, UH-Manoa campus
When: 8 p.m. today and tomorrow, and May 1 to 3; and 2 p.m. May 4
Tickets: $3-$12
Call: 956-7655
Note: 7 p.m. pre-show discussions on various aspects of Schiller's work will be held before the Friday and Saturday performances

Big Island rappers Sudden Rush told their foes in the local music industry last year that "If this song offends you, then it's you we're talking about." Markus Wessendorf, professor of theater at UH-Manoa, says that German playwright Friedrich Schiller used the same technique over 200 years ago when he attacked autocratic authoritarian rule with his first play, "The Robbers," in 1782.

"Schiller was (living) in Stuttgart at that point and couldn't attack the authoritarian ruler personally, so he had to transfer the location (to Nuremberg). It was such a strong attack on autocratic authoritarian rule and society ... (the play) was really interpreted as a major rebellion against tyranny (and) that was Schiller's intent," Wessendorf explained during a phone interview late Monday afternoon.

Wessendorf is directing an experimental multimedia production of Schiller's classic, set in a very timely and contemporary setting. Kennedy Theatre will be transformed into "Kennedy Airport" and the performance will include security guards, FBI agents, stranded air travelers and suspected terrorists. Three overhead video screens will show live interviews of various characters.

It sounds like the biggest and most ambitious UH-Manoa theatrical production since Dennis Carroll directed an epic 6-hour staging of "Faust" two years ago. Wessendorf arrived in Hawaii a few months too late to see Carroll's tremendous tribute to Goethe's masterpiece, but sees a connection or two between the two productions, beyond the obvious similarities in the size and scope.

"Schiller and Goethe are basically to German theater what Shakespeare is to the English-speaking world, and ("The Robbers") is actually very Shakespeare-influenced. The rogue character is very much based on Richard III. It is one of the major classics of German drama, a play that has always fascinated me."

UH student actor Scot Davis stars as Karl von Moor, a idealistic college student who becomes the leader of a gang of robbers after his scheming younger brother, Franz (Jeremy Pippin), prevents him from returning to the court of his father (Blake Kushi).

"It's a play about political violence and disillusioned students that, more or less, naively form this gang of robbers that inadvertently crosses a line into crime, murder and terrorism. I was looking for a play that would resonate with the current geopolitical situation, but of course I made the decision a year ago, and the situation has changed quite dramatically since then."

So much so, in fact, he says, that less than two months ago, he was asked if he might want to change the play and do something that wouldn't "resonate" quite as much. Wessendorf stayed true to his original concept and kept the project on track as American and British forces were moved towards the invasion and subsequent conquering of Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

WESSENDORF says that the issues the Schiller addressed in "The Robbers" gives the play an appeal that transcends everyday political power plays.

"Schiller has always been popular in Germany ... but 'The Robbers' has always been really popular during times of political turmoil. It was popular in the 1920s. There was a famous Marxist production ... which was kind of a Trotskyite version, which basically was centered around the one militant, most radical, robber among the characters. And then again it was very popular in the '60s among the time of the student movement. There were four or five productions then."

Schiller's play was also popular in the waning days of the neo-Stalinist German Democratic Republic, aka East Germany.

"I saw a big production of the play by the leading East German director a year after the (Berlin) wall came down, but he also had originally staged the play as a critique of the communist regime in East Germany in 1988. It was very popular because it was the only way, in a very subtle way, to critique the government. You can inflect the speech or make certain gestures indicating a certain character that the audience clearly links to politicians, while the censors very often are not able to find anything substantial (in the script)."

Wessendorf is presenting "The Robbers" as a play-within-a-play that's being staged in a lounge in an international airport, post Sept. 11, 2001. A group of dancers choreographed by Betsy Fisher will also be performing as passengers waiting for a delayed flight.

"I don't want to boast here, but I think it's a really ambitious project. The set is probably the largest set that Kennedy Theatre has seen in two decades. There are at least three major choreographies that happen concurrently to other stage action in the play. Usually the (theater and dance) departments go their own ways, so we're really making an attempt to collaborate between the theatre and dance people.

"We have three video screens suspended above the stage and they are also quite central to the story -- some of the monologues are basically spoken to cameras as if they were being interviewed on CNN ... so there's video imagery commenting about what's happening on stage.

"But even though there are all these kind of elements that are not necessarily mainstream theater, the idea is still to communicate the story. I'm still very much concerned about getting the story across," Wessendorf said.

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