My Parsifal Conductor
by Allan Leicht
Directed by Robert Kalfin
Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater at the West Side YMCA
Richard Wagner – Eddie Korbich
Cosima – Claire Brownell
King Ludwig of Bavaria – Carlo Bosticco
Hermann Levi – Geoffrey Cantor
Alison Cimmet – Dora
Jazmin Gorsline – Carrie/Sophie
Logan James Hall – Nietzsche
Not exactly hard on the heels of Roundabout’s splendid revival Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, stumbles Allan Leicht’s My Parsifal Conductor. Mr. Leicht, in my view, has committed one of the primal sins of theater in attempting to imitate Stoppard. It’s not that I consider Stoppard a towering genius whose achievements are beyond mere mortals, but he practises a very particular kind of allusive, derivative verbal theater, which, bracing, exciting, and stimulating at its best—verbally more than intellectually—is impossible to imitate.
Before I go into the grim details of this, I want to praise the wonderful cast and director of this particular travesty. Some were younger artists, the leads were well-seasoned, but all made the best they could of the weak material they had to work with, and that is an achievement worth honoring in theater.
Claire Brownell, playing Cosima Liszt-Wagner, who is the real protagonist of the play, gave a colorful performance of Cosima as something of a flibbertigibbet, who is even distracted from her own demise by last-minute document-burning. Eddie Korbich was perfectly cast as Richard Wagner, not only because of his short stature, but because he could make his physiognomy, which only half resembled that of the Master of Bayreuth, effectively convince you that he’s Wagner, or some version of him. Geoffrey Cantor was dignified, but never pompous, as Hermann Levi, the Jewish conductor who was to conduct Parsifal, Wagner’s final masterpiece, at Bayreuth. In this play Levi was the only intelligent adult in sight. Carlo Bosticco gave us an entirely convincing, even charming portrayal of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, subtly moving hints of the king’s eccentricity or lunacy into the background. Logan James Hall compensated for the slightness of Nietzsche’s characterization with a liveliness that recalled Andrew Sachs’ Manuel in Fawlty Towers, and not just because of his un-Nietzschean mustache. Director Robert Kalfin gave these impressive and likable talents expert direction in navigating the flaccid material they had to work with. Their thoroughly professional work they brought to the stage should be a lesson to anyone in the industry.
The thing about Stoppard that Leicht didn’t get was that his model knows and researches his subjects to the degree an intelligent artist would feel necessary for an historical subject he chooses to treat. Stoppard has no interest in hammering out an historical play; he is playing with figures from the past. He has studied them enough to understand them—not to an academic level, but enough to gain his inventions admittance into the intellectual world of people who know and love Joyce or Tzara. These people, Stoppard’s target audience in my opinion, will find amusement in his departures from fact or comic distortion, exaggeration, or befuddlement.
Mr. Leicht hasn’t done his homework! None of his reference points to the lives and opinions of Richard or Cosima Wagner are correct and precise enough to work the Stoppardian magic on us. In fact the play plods and plods and sinks into the mire and muck of a vague, cartoonish representation of high-ranking figures in music, drama, and history.
I’m not saying this as a pedant or fanatical Wagnerian who insists that any theatrical or cinematic representation of the Master be accurate, not that any of them ever have, but an observer of Stoppard’s genre, from which this play is inseparable. Whether a playwright wants to commit the error of imitating Stoppard or not, I think he or she must consider the issue of verisimilitude. If Cosima is to be the central figure of the play, she should resemble Cosima, and so should her husband, and so should Nietzsche. Levi, about whom less is known, proved the most convincing character of them all.
Cosima in her time was perceived as a rather remote, powerful, occasionally charismatic, figure who stood out for her self-control, almost the the point of impersonality. Ernest Newman, in his brilliant analysis of Cosima, refers to the etiquette book by the Spanish Jesuit, Balthazar Gracian, in his animadversions to conceal one’s inner nature and desires. Recent literature has carried this much further, but Leicht’s Cosima bear no resemblance to anything I know about her.
I could carry this on to the others, but there is no need. The fatal flaw is exposed. The comedy revolves around King Ludwig’s insistence (and most likely Wagner’s hidden preference for) on Hermann Levi, and the Wagner camp’s rejection of a Jew as conductor of Wagner’s “Christian” opera. (One might well think of Parsifal as throwing Christian devotion into question, even if the goal is some very beautiful and exalting music.) The farce plays out around this issue. There are many other points and issues relating to Wagner’s later years that are theatrically more interesting than the Wagners’ anti-semitism. They Wagner-Liszt family in Venice might have been one interesting arena. A feminist look at Cosima, as a woman who devoted herself to her husband’s career and its posterity, might have been another avenue to follow. And Cosima was no devout Catholic, who would want to justify her anti-semitism before the angels of heaven. She hated Catholics almost as much as Jews. Her espousal of Hitler shows her to have been unrepentant.
However, My Parsifal Conductor followed none of these paths.. By the intermission I was hoping for the second act to be short and focused, but it seemed to go on forever, hinting at conclusions, but, postponing the devoutly wished consummation to the bitter end. It was quite unfocussed, possibly due to hasty, thoughtless cuts, and the cast tried to compensate by exaggerating the by then familiar jokes to a painfully raucous level. Leicht’s technique of using some jokes as running gags fell flat and simply seemed repetitious, because the jokes just weren’t very funny to begin with. I couldn’t wait for My Parsifal Conductor to end.
I like to think that Wagner himself would not have fared well under the Nazis. The very rumor of his illegitimate paternity by a putative Jew, Ludwig Geyer, tenant and later husband of his mother, would have been enough to send him to Dachau, not to mention his fractious nature. Taking second place to Hitler would not have sat well with him.
As I wrote and revised this review. The news of the terrible shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh unfolded, reminding us that there is nothing funny about anti-Semitism. Following the hijacking of the US government in the 2016 election, so many topics any of us might use in black or tasteless humor have lost their potential for even sardonic laughter. These are grim times. (My Parsifal Conductor was clearly not made for them.)
But we mustn’t forget the power of satire in emergencies like the present one. As artists, it is our duty to keep people awake, and laughter, especially painful laughter, is one way to accomplish that.