I'm currently rehearsing Mac Wellman's The Offending Gesture at Son of Semele Ensemble (opening Saturday, March 18th). This play is both bewildering and delightful. It follows Blondi, a German Shepherd belonging to Noble Wolf (aka Adolf Hitler) and Jackie, a Finnish mutt, as they try to encourage Noble Wolf to invade Iraq instead of Finland. Yes, you read all of that correctly. Although Wellman began writing it in 2013 and it premiered in 2016 at the Connelly Theater in New York, its parallels to our current political climate is particularly eerie.
Throughout the rehearsal process the entire cast and creative team have had endless questions. Wellman's absurd comedy plays with repetition and malapropisms as our narrators of the piece are dogs - and doggies don't always get things right in the complicated world of humans.
Wellman took time recently via phone to answer a few of our questions. Although certainly relevant pre-election as the play focuses on Iraq, there does feel like a certain anticipation of the rise of Trump and nationalism. “I don't know if it anticipated what's going on now,” says Wellman, “but there are a lot of odd things going on in this country. I don't think of it as anticipating Trump and his madness, but I do think that we're in a weird time. It's not just Trump, the whole political landscape is screwed up.”
Drawing parallels from Hitler's rise to today's world, Wellman admits, “When I was born Hitler was still alive. I've done a number of tutorials with students studying his life so I know a lot about him. He was a very canny character. He said if you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it. Which is true. And the political party he wanted to run “The Party of No” said no to everything.” If you say no enough, “eventually you will win. We live in a time where both those things are guiding principles.”
What, then, was the impetus for writing The Offending Gesture? “I just found this weird story about a dog in Finland [a mutt named Jackie] who would do the Nazi salute when his master would say ‘Heil Hitler' and I thought that's odd. When I began thinking about it, I got interested in dogs.”
Hitler actually had a dog named Blondi who he had killed when they were in the bunker. He was terrified that she would be captured and tortured by the Russians. Wellman adds, “Doggies are very nice. Blondi loves Hitler, she doesn't know that he's a bad person. It doesn't make a difference to Blondi. And Hitler loves Blondi. I also looked up the meaning of ‘Adolf' and it means ‘Noble Wolf' and so thought he's a dog too - I then became very interested in writing a doggy play. And it just took off from there.”
There's a lot of repetition and variation in the script - and an absurd doggie logic that drives the play. What has been the process in creating this deceptively simple logic with the language? Wellman says, “I began to write bits of it. Then I'd put it down and come back to it in a few weeks. Gradually I figured out what I wanted to do. The purpose of the play is not to say Hitler's a nice guy, but I also think that we're used to saying Hitler is evil and we are good. I think that's what I'm trying to attack.
“We're not so different [than Hitler]. Obama got the Nobel Peace Prize and I don't know how many people he's murdered with drones. It's pretty scary. We're all not so different, it's sad to say.”
On the repetition of the language he says, “it's really about doggie logic. Dogs like to repeat things. When they're having a good time they want you to throw the bone and they'll run after it and bring it back to you. They love repeating things that they like. So do people. Dogs in particular like that. I think that's a big part of their enjoyment of life. They don't try to disguise [themselves] the way people do.”
At the end of the play Blondi has a monologue which is taken from the father of pragmatism, Charles S. Peirce. Was it a conscious decision to incorporate pragmatism in a play that's questioning meaning and understanding? It was purely coincidental says Wellman. “I was reading Peirce and there's all this stuff about dogs. And I thought, this belongs in this play.”
He elaborates, “it seemed like something that was in opposition to Nazi commitment to it's own importance.” The speech attempts to analyse our own thought processes which could be compared to the Third Reich's motto of “working towards the leader.” Wellman say, “everybody was trying to do [what Hitler wanted] but no one could figure it out because Hitler would never say it. That's what's so weird about the Nazis, is that no one ever wrote anything down. Particularly the anti-semitic stuff. They'd say it, but would never write it down because they knew it would get them in trouble.”
The play calls for women to play the Mooncats (who play music throughout and various characters) and the three dogs (Noble Wolf, Blondi and Jackie), why have an ensemble of women playing men (and animals)? “A few years ago I did a play about Mussolini - a guy played Mussolini and all he did was imitate Mussolini and it wasn't very interesting. When I did a full production I had a woman play Mussolini. I just think, for whatever reasons, women are more theatrical than men are on stage. I didn't want Hitler to just be a stereotype. Everyone knows what he looked like and immediately you stop thinking and go to the stereotype.” He adds, “Also, there aren't that many great parts like that for women.”
Music plays an integral role in the production. Throughout, the “Mooncats” comment on the action through song. Wellman elaborates, “I mention the Polish composer Goreki's work [“Miserere”]. He wrote very emotional music about the Holocaust. We used a little bit of that. And my composer adapted some of of Goreski's work with her own music. I think [the music] provides an emotional undertone to the whole play.”
Gorecki's “Miserere” was written in 1981 as a protest to the Polish government. The lyrics include “Domine Deus Noster” which means “Lord our God”. Was this included as a protest to government oppression or a more literal calling on “Lord our God” to help us? “It's both,” says Wellman. “The cats and dogs are chattering like people do in a sort of meaningless way. And yet there's this hideous reality that they're ignoring, which comes through the music.”
Wellman shares a story of when he went to Warsaw in his youth. “When I was 20 years old I hitchhiked across Europe and I ended up in Warsaw in the winter. I had a tour of the Warsaw ghetto in the middle of winter which was a big white square of snow. There was nothing alive there. The tour director said when the war ended there were only three things alive in the ghetto - just three trees. They're still there. And that had a huge impact on me. The horrific nature of what had happened. Which people ignore and forget.”
How does Wellman feel about theatre as a form of political protest? “I think it's something theatre can do better than anything else. It's right in front of you. At its best it really shows you where you are in the moment. I think it's always a protest against the political realities we don't like - by the very fact that it's live. It's happening right in front of you.”
With the rise of Trump here, Brexit, and nationalism growing in Europe, this piece feels even more relevant. There are so many of layers in this play that audiences won't get everything with just one viewing. “You never do,” says Wellman. “Hopefully you'll think about it. But I also don't like preachy theatre so I didn't want to tell people A is good and B is bad.”
At the end, Jackie makes a speech directly comparing the Republican party to the Nazis. Wellman elaborates, “It's a fact that the Republican Party said no to everything and that's exactly what the Nazi Party did for a long time. Now they run everything in this country and they don't have an idea in their heads of what to do. They don't care about people. They only care about their own self interests.”
Have these interesting political times we live in sparked a new political play? “Maybe. I don't know. I haven't gotten an idea yet that I like. I'm just mad at the Democrats because they refuse to attack the Republicans. But that's what happened with the Nazis - no one would attack them.”
Hopefully this new generation will stay active and engaged. Wellman hopes so too, “It's just as important to get organized. Start at the local level and work up. That's what the Republicans did and now they run everything.”
Wellman is known for being an extraordinary playwriting teacher at Brooklyn College. The playwrights coming from his programs are incredibly diverse in terms of style and content. He implores, “I think there are more good playwrights now than ever before. What there are fewer of are theatres. Everyone wants to do Broadway, do corporate theatre.”
It's different in LA I tell him. He agrees, “I've been to LA a few times and I'm always struck by how many good small theatre there are. LA is a great theatre town.”
He asks me how I'm getting on with Blondi. “I curse your name everyday in rehearsal,” I say, adding, “with affection and admiration, of course.” He laughs. I tell him i love the simplicity and sincerity of playing a dog.
He says, “You're just a good dog and you're mad at Noble Wolf because he won't tug at your ears and pat you enough.” Adding, “Dogs, they live positively. They love to be stroked and wag their tails. They don't necessarily like other dogs and they don't particularly like cats, but they're interesting. They're sweet.”
The Offending Gesture by Mac Wellman plays at Son of Semele Ensemble from March 18th. Tickets on sale at sonofsemele.org
Feature image: Anastasia Coon, Ashley Steed and Melina Bielefelt. Photo by Dan Via