I like art that challenges me. I like prioritizing shows that push me out of my comfort zone, that strive to change minds and hearts, that one might consider “edgy” or “avant-garde”. I saw a good number of challenging performances this year, but the shows I keep coming back to from this season felt decidedly comfortable. I didn’t expect anything life changing from either of these performances, but they resonated with me, referencing today’s political climate through their period setting. Idiot’s Delight by Girl Friday Productions and Lettres et Café by Bad Mime Productions were both set around World War II, and World War II feels closer than ever lately.
Idiot’s Delight imagines the start of World War II several years before it actually began, prophesied by playwright Robert Sherwood in 1936. He got quite a bit of it right. The tense state of affairs in the world at large today illuminated the undercurrent of anxiety and fear present in Idiot’s Delight, bubbling beneath the romance and cocktail hour veneer of an international hotel. I assumed a silver screen story with excellent execution and a jazzy romance. Idiot’s Delight delivered on that promise, stringing sweet cabaret performances and classic charm through a landscape fraught with imminent danger, all staged with beautiful period costumes and performances. I had not anticipated the dread I felt in the first moment that I saw Italian soldiers in uniform walk onstage, as I had never seen the film and hadn’t done my usual homework about the play. The threat of war hung precipitously over all the small, personal moments in the show, making them more vital, more urgent.
Quillory, a French revolutionary and communist who ultimately is executed for his ideals, was portrayed in the show by a black man, in front of an audience that was overwhelmingly white. This particular political choice in the days of Black Lives Matter is not lost on me. Idiot’s Delight could have easily been written off as a nice period piece for an evening’s entertainment, but this performance was political in the way that identity is always political. Your identity, your community, shapes your values and experiences and the way others perceive you. Even Dr. Waldersee, insistent on completing her research to save lives, ultimately returns to Germany out of nationalism. The despair and helplessness at the end of this show, as the central character decides to stay in what will soon be a war zone for the sake of human connection, nonetheless felt hopeful. Humanity must be capable of caring more about other humans and relationships, rather than jingoism. And if we can't, how can we keep going?
Lettres et Café helped answer that question. Based on the familiar romantic trope present in “You’ve Got Mail”, originally from a Hungarian play entitled "Perfumerie" by Miklós László, Lettres et Café follows a grouping of small shop owners in Paris after World War II, where the romantic leads work together in a cafe: Seymour owns the shop, and Evalyn works in it as a barista. He was a soldier during the war, and she helped hide those hunted by the Nazis. The romance was the through line of this show, but the surrounding cast of shop owners brought their Parisian corner to life in the way that only live theater can. The threat of gentrification, with a wealthy businessman attempting to purchase their corner and push out the individual stalls, brought further relevance and cohesion to a show about rebuilding after tragedy.
I’ve had a hard time feeling hopeful in 2017, but when I left Theatre in the Round after an hour with some incredible actors telling a fun and lighthearted story, the sun kissed my face and I was warm, inside and out. I was energized and filled with positivity, and though I could have gone to the next show on my list, my partner and I decided to take a break and sit for the next slot. I wanted to soak in that feeling for a little while longer. So preoccupied with resisting, I had forgotten the simplicity of just enjoying something well-crafted with love. Lettres et Café rallied my heart with a vision of good people, a community working together, connecting and succeeding through adversity. I felt just as I do after a strong, perfectly balanced, and much-needed cup of coffee: revitalized and ready to get to work.
We all strive for connection even in the face of despair. We try as hard as we can to find meaning while all falls down around us, persevering through wars and conflicts throughout history and into the future. In Idiot’s Delight, humans try to understand one another even though their circumstances pull them apart. In Lettres et Café, individual emotions are eventually overcome by understanding, despite difficult circumstances. The tension inherent in the WWII setting, and characters that strove to live as normally as possible while recognizing that nothing could be the same, was relatable on a visceral level. I have felt in 2017 that somehow we are doomed to repeat our greatest mistakes as fascists flying Nazi flags and iconography rise in the streets of major cities across the world. In Idiot’s Delight, I saw the tragedy of humanity, with a glimmer of hope that some people might still pursue. In Lettres et Café, I saw our inspiration to come together, pick up the pieces, and move forward.