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Theatre in Review: Spy Garbo (Affinity Company Theatre/3-Legged Dog)

Steven Rattazzi. Photo: Jim Baldassre

Joan Pujol Garcia is surely the most fascinating historical figure that you've never heard of. Operating under the code name Garbo during World War II, the Spanish spy seduced his masters with a fantastic array of manufactured data, overseeing a network of fictitious agents and feeding astonishing amounts of disinformation that helped to alter the course of history. His will was remarkable; when the British initially refused his services, he got himself hired by the Nazis, an act that made him appealing to England as a double agent. Among his accomplishments, he was instrumental in misleading the Germans about the time and location of the invasion of Normandy. After the war, he faked his death, living quietly in Venezuela until his death in 1988. For his contribution to the allied victory, he was named a Member of the Order of the British Empire.

Oddly, despite his title-character status, Garcia never appears in Spy Garbo. Instead, Sheila Schwartz's script provides a forum for three other, better-known, actors from history: the dictator Francisco Franco, the notorious pro-Soviet spy Kim Philby, and Wilhelm Canaris, who participated in Valkyrie, the generals' plot to kill Hitler -- each of whom interacted with Garbo at one point or another. The three meet somewhere on the astral plane, here conceived as a giant library stuffed with texts as well as bits of old newsreels, Hollywood epics, and Nazi home movies. Each character yearns for vindication: Franco wants to be remembered as an anti-Communist hero who eventually restored democracy to Spain. Philby portrays himself as the handsome, idealistic protagonist of a Hollywood thriller, standing against fascism. And Canaris craves recognition for his role in the assassination plot, even if it failed.

Schwartz is particularly acute in exploring the dizzying, many-leveled deceptions that constituted the World War II spy game. As. Franco says, "You, Canaris, Hitler's top spy. Secretly an anti-Hitler spy. You hire and name Spy Garbo to be a Nazi spy, knowing anti-Hitler Spy Garbo is lying to you. You, Hitler's top spy. You plot Spy Garbo to double-cross you and Hitler. You run Spy Garbo's betrayal of you." It's no wonder these men want to set the record straight.

However, in Spy Garbo, no one's illusions will be allowed to survive, as each character's assertions are subjected to withering criticism by the others. Canaris' growing disaffection with the Nazi regime is mocked by Philby, who dismisses him as an incompetent. ("'Don't touch Canaris,' Churchill would chuckle. 'His Abwehr outfit is so bad, it's an inadvertent asset to us.") Franco is brought to account for the horror of the Guernica bombing, in which he allowed the Nazis to brutally murder his own citizens. (He tries squirming out of this, to no avail.) And Philby, burned out by a lifetime of deception and betrayal, wonders what it was all for. "Once upon a time, I really did sign on to save the world. Not just steal all its files," he notes sadly, recalling how he ended up an exile in Moscow, a "bit player, some stuttering seedy exile, drunken roué in old tweeds, all loose dentures, dandruff, and bad socks." As Franco bitterly notes, "History, you are just so unjust."

Line by line, Spy Garbo has plenty of trenchant commentary to offer, but, ultimately, Schwartz has written a conversation piece rather than a play that contains any meaningful dramatic action, and the somewhat circular nature of the talk becomes a little wearing. More complex and troubling is the role of technology in Kevin Cunningham's production. The text includes cues for a cascade of imagery, ranging from scenes from old Barcelona to Nazi rallies to bits of the films For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Third Man. In Neal Wilkinson's set design, the upstage and side walls are wrapped in the widest projection screen this side of a Cinerama theatre; in addition, an Eyeliner system -- used to create digital versions of Pepper's ghost effects -- layers additional imagery onto the stage. It's a complex setup -- the video is by Aaron Harrow, Jeff Morey, and Peter Norrman -- and it arguably pulls too much focus from the cast. As is always the case at 3LD, the work is technically flawless, but the enormous images dwarf the cast and the use of Eyeliner, which requires the use of a pit separating the audience and stage, has a further distancing effect. As a result, Marcelo Anez, the sound designer, has to mic the actors, an unfortunate choice for a three-character play. (In other respects, Anez's work -- a mix of old film scores, classical piano etudes, startling explosions, and odd bits such as Brecht and Weill's "Bilbao song" -- is quite attractive.) Given all of this, the actors' ability to connect with the audience is compromised. It's hard not to feel that a more intimate approach would have served the script better.

Nearly everything else about Spy Garbo is expertly done, including Clint Ramos' period-correct suits and military uniforms and Laura Mroczkwoski's lighting, which has a way of trapping each character in his own spotlight. Among the cast, Steven Hauck -- last seen as a German butler in the Tovah Feldshuh vehicle Irena's Vow -- once again demonstrates his mastery of the German accent and his skill at elucidating morally troubled souls. Chad Hoeppner's Philby is an amusingly sly would-be hero, dazzled by his romantic view of his career yet haunted by doubts that he would rather not entertain. Steven Rattazzi's Franco s a little shrill at times, possibly because of the script's uncertain treatment of him as a comic figure.

Overall, Spy Garbo has a number of things going for it -- fascinating material, some powerful writing, and a stunning production design -- but the elements tend to fight one another, resulting in a play that intrigues but doesn't command your attention. There's a better script in this material, and I hope someone finds it.--David Barbour

(18 March 2011)

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