by Jason Jacobs · August 21, 2015
Stuart Williams, Michael Countryman | Lia Chang
The morning rush at my overcrowded subway station can be stressful. The stairways to the platforms are usually backed up with hurried workers, baby carriages, children, and slow-going elderly people. When trains are delayed, it’s scary how crowded the narrow platforms can be. Add the tensions of a racially and economically diverse neighborhood, and you start to realize what a thin line exists between tense civility and harmful disorder. It may be a stretch to connect the morning rush at 125th Street with the most deadly civilian disaster of World War II, but Martin Casella’s new drama, The Report is a vivid reminder of the responsibility we all share, not only for own safety, but for our neighbors as well.
The Bethnal Green station in London’s densely populated East End was an important bomb shelter during the war. Thousands of people accessed it during the frequent nighttime air raids through a single, dimly lit stairway. On March 3, 1943, some combination of a broken light bulb, the poorly designed entrance, the fright of nearby explosions, and fallible human nature caused a panic in the stairwell. Hundreds of people fell down the stairs in a domino effect that left 173 casualties. Most of the dead were women and children. The Report examines this event to ask compelling questions about human behavior.
Based on a novel by Jessica Francis Kane, the sober play opens in 1973. Sir Laurence Dunne (Michael Countryman), the well-intentioned, stiff upper-lipped magistrate who led the investigation and wrote a controversial report on the incident is visited by Paul, a documentary filmmaker (Stuart Williams). Paul persuades Dunne to talk about the investigation, leading to flashbacks of the community before and after the incident. Paul is curious about Dunne’s motives: why did he conduct the investigation and write the report as he did? What did he leave out, and why? As we learn how individuals and families were devastated by the event, it becomes clear that Paul’s personal stake in the story is far from objective.
The play unfolds as a mystery story. Director Alan Muraoka plunges the audience into the terror and confusion of inciting disaster, and then we follow Paul and Dunne as each man pursues his own investigation. Questions evoke more questions and the picture becomes increasingly complicated, layered with Implications of government culpability, class tensions, personal grudges and anti-Semitism against the Jewish refugees. The background lurks with the larger context of the war, the Holocaust, and the complexity of Anglo-Jewish relations in this period. Dunne attempts to create order of the chaos, but the situation may ultimately be too complicated to comprehend. Dunne’s report was initially censored by the government, and later criticized by the public, in part because he ultimately resists the impulse to lay blame on any single person.
This is a verbal play that asks the audience to lean forward and listen closely, but the theatricality of Muraoka’s production holds our attention. Dunne and Paul are always on stage, surrounded by the memories that play out around them, creating the impression that Dunne remains haunted by the subjects of his inquiry. The flashback scenes, played full-throttle by ensemble of mostly British young actors, were the most compelling part of this production for me. The performance I saw was a casualty to its own particular “disaster”: a broken air-conditioner at the FringeNYC venue left the cast sweltering in their period wool and tweed costumes (rendered with authenticity by Brian Hemesath) and sometimes difficult to hear. But even under stressful conditions, the cast gave a committed performance and held the audience for two hours. No doubt that with more resources Muraoka, Casella and their team can build on this strong first outing.
The morning after the show, as I rushed down into the sweltering subway station, I caught myself racing around people in order to catch a train. Then I thought back to everything I had seen in The Report: we are fortunate not to live in wartime conditions, but even here, the potential for a crowd to become a mob may be one shove away.