“Ganesh Versus the Third Reich,” the 90-minute one-act that closes Walker Art Center’s 25th Out There Series, is a powerfully absorbing piece of theater that should not be missed.
The moving and affecting show has been directed and designed by Bruce Gladwin for Australia’s Back to Back Theatre. “Ganesh” deals with myth and history, bigotry and brutality in two intersecting story lines. The most fraught narrative is a reclamation project.
Elephant-headed Indian deity Ganesh seeks to take back the swastika, an ancient Hindu symbol, from the Nazis. The god (played with blustery power by Brian Tilley) travels from his cosmic realm to the European war theater in 1943 to confront the Third Reich, from Josef Mengele to Hitler himself.
The second narrative revolves around the behind-the-scenes quarrels of the cantankerous acting company as they seek to stage the work. Back to Back is made up mostly of players with mental disabilities. The performers — Mark Deans, Scott Price, Simon Laherty, Luke Ryan and Tilley — play themselves in rehearsal and then their characters. They dress and undress onstage in full view as they construct and deconstruct the story.
Normally, I’m not a big fan of work that looks at the processes of its own form. Poems about poetry and plays about theater often are too inward looking. But the meta-theater works in many ways in “Ganesh.” The makeup of the acting company, and their deeply engaging performances, counter Nazi ideas.
The meta-theater also works as a sort of escape valve for when the action gets too intense, which it often does.
One emblematic scene is chillingly suggestive. It takes place on a train where Ganesh is sitting back to back with his Jewish guide, Levi (Laherty). The interrogator (Ryan) asks about the shape of his nose and the young man’s family, all while trying to sell a pair of stockings. The ride, like most of the pieces featuring the Ganesh narrative, takes place behind a plastic scrim in a shadowy light.
The simple props, the power of suggestion and all the elements combine to make this layered production memorably moving. Whether Ganesh succeeds in his quest is almost beside the point. The show, a whirl of history and myths, left me so enriched with questions and ideas, I have enough to chew on for a long while.