Scot Davis performs in the University of Hawaii production of "The Robbers," which incorporates video technology.

Analogy to current events
falls flat in ‘The Robbers’

"The Robbers," presented by the UH-Manoa Department of Theatre and Dance, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Kennedy Theatre Mainstage. Tickets are $12. Call 956-7655.

A German villain with a Texas accent is one of several ambiguous elements in director Markus Wessendorf's staging of "The Robbers" at Kennedy Theatre. Maybe it's the problem of translating German into English, or maybe Wessendorf assumes that local audiences know Friedrich Schiller's play as thoroughly as he does. Whatever the reason, this production is far more opaque than Kennedy Theatre's equally ambitious six-hour production of "Faust I"/"Faust II" was in 2001.

Wessendorf explains in the program notes that Schilller's play "can be read as a critique of the use of political violence by 'revolutionary' as well as 'conservative' forces." Little of that is evident. Few characters seem motivated by anything more than the plot requirements.

Evil Franz von Moor (Jeremy Pippin) tricks his father (Blake Kushi, looking surprisingly like King Kalakaua), into disinheriting his older brother, Karl (Scot Davis). Franz also tries to convince Karl's fiancee, Amalia (Annie Lipscomb), that Karl has forsaken her for a prostitute.

Karl gets the bad news via e-mail and -- for reasons never made clear -- becomes the leader of a gang of idealistic robbers. Is it because he has no other way to make a living? Is it his way of lashing out against his father and brother? Karl and his friends talk about robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, but before long the authorities are hunting them as bandits and terrorists.

Karl and his comrades slip into his homeland of Franconia, now under Franz's despotic rule, and Karl goes on alone to find Amalia. She doesn't recognize him, but is attracted to him nonetheless.

Wessendorf's set is part airport waiting area and part sterile red-brown desert. The characters must pass through a checkpoint to enter the desert/ performance area. Metal detectors are passed over their bodies and weapons must be left at the gate. A guard announces each change of scene and setting; actors awaiting their cues can be seen sitting in the waiting area at the rear of the set.

The airport setting is a novelty, but several of Wessendorf's other choices open the production to criticism of its muddled use of post-9/11 imagery. Having Pippin play Franz with a Texas accent while wearing a cowboy-style bolo tie, apparently is intended to equate Franz with President Bush.

Karl morphs from clean-cut student to long-haired, bearded robber/terrorist and apparently is intended to be the doppelganger of hapless "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh.

The problem with these theatrical devices in a political parable is that Bush II didn't become president by betraying his father and brother, and not even those who prosecuted Lindh claimed he was anything more than an idealistic foot soldier for the Taliban. It's also odd that Karl looks like a bum while the men he leads all are neatly uniformed.

There are other problems. Franz' ambition and cruelty is clear, but we are told rather than shown why Karl comes to think of himself as evil. Characters change sides for reasons that seem to have little to do with character development. Other twists and turns in the story stretch probability past the breaking point.

Pippin plays Franz as a cold, emotionless psychopath -- "Goddammit, pray (for me)!" he orders a helpless lackey when all seems lost. Davis delivers plenty of sound and fury but never makes Karl's self-loathing more than a plot device. Pippin plays perfectly as the villain despite the jarring accent, but Davis doesn't make Karl's mood swings and increasingly bizarre behavior believable.

Karl's followers are indistinguishable except for Schufterle (Danel Victoria Verdugo), whom Karl expels from the band after she describes with ghoulish relish the thrill of killing a child during one of the group's operations. Verdugo's monologue, delivered to a video cameo and projected larger-than-life on screens, is one of the most chilling moments in the show.

Colleen Lanki stands out in a very bizarre portrayal of Spiegelberg, the most radical of the ex-students, who resents Karl's selection as leader. And Annie Lipscomb touches the heart as the tortured heroine and makes Amalia the only truly sympathetic character.

Video clips -- artillery firing, toads having sex, the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination -- provide enigmatic counterpoints to the performances. A clip of a large toad swallowing a mouse evoked the most response on opening night.

Pre-show discussions of Schiller's work will be held at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

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