With strings attached, Compulsion compells

Sep 17

Compulsion 1

Mandy Patinkin as Sid Silver shares the stage with a marionette representing Anne Frank in Rinne Groff’s Compulsion at Berkeley Repertorty Theatre. Photos courtesy of www.kevinberne.com

It’s so incredibly exciting to be enthralled by someone or something. In the case of Rinne Groff’s Compulsion at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, it’s someone and something.

The world-premiere production (in collaboration with Yale Repertory Theatre, where the play ran earlier this year, and The Public Theater in New York, where the play goes next) is ostensibly a roman a clef about the life of Meyer Levin, the journalist and novelist most famous for the novel Compulsion, his fictionalized spin on the Leopold and Loeb murders. Levin’s stand-in here is Sid Silver, also Jewish, also from Chicago, also married to a French woman, also obsessed with Anne Frank and her diary.

Taking a cue from the real-life Levin’s younger days, Silver is a puppeteer who once did O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape in a marionette theater. That gives Groff license to bring puppets into the dramatic fray – puppets representing Anne Frank, her father, Otto, and actors in various productions of the play The Diary of Anne Frank. This is fun in Act 1, but you find yourself wondering what puppets are really doing in a serious play about self-identity and the depths of spiritual obsession.

Then comes a scene involving Sid (Mandy Patinkin), his wife (Hannah Cabell) and a marionette representing Anne Frank. To reveal too much about the scene would spoil what is an absolutely extraordinary theatrical moment – emotionally complex, powerfully moving. It’s enough to say that Patinkin, who gives voice to Anne during the scene, mesmerizes, as does Cabell. She opens her soul to reveal a spurned wife, a compassionate mother and a human being utterly bewildered by the man she loves so deeply.

Puppet designer and supervisor Matt Acheson has done marvelous work throughout with the marionettes, but this particular scene is a dramatic triumph. The Anne puppet makes such subtle, touching gestures that she seems, if not human, then otherworldly (it also helps that Michael Chybowski’s lighting is so expertly dim). If I had strings, I’d want them to be manipulated by the expert hands of puppeteers Emily DeCola, Daniel Patrick Fay and Eric Wright. In fact, the puppets are so intriguing I wanted more of them. In Act 1, too many scenes go by without any hint of strings or papier mâché faces.

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That’s not to take anything away from the trio of humans on stage. Patinkin delivers as fine a performance as you can imagine in the role of Silver, a character who does very little to make himself likable. In fact, Sid tends to alienate and infuriate just about everyone he comes into contact with (including his wife). He’s got an enormous ego and a persecution mania. Everyone’s out to get him. It’s all a conspiracy. And he will fight – and fight hard – anyone who gets in his way. But Patinkin finds ways to show us that Sid is a good man. His righteousness comes from a deeply spiritual place, but he has little in his emotional arsenal to regulate his passion and outsize emotions. You sympathize with Sid as much as you feel for those having to deal with him.

Cabell is a wonder in two key roles: Mrs. Silver and Miss Mermin, the Doubleday publishing agent who gets caught up in Sid’s vortex and feels the effects for decades. As Mrs. Silver, Cabell never ceases to reveal new levels of emotional complexity.

As a quartet of various publishers, lawyers and friends, Matte Osian brings some welcome humor to a very serious piece, but what’s interesting about the laughs (and there are plenty) is that they relate directly to issues of persecution, anti-Semitism and general ignorance and insensitivity, all of which course through the entire play.

If Jeff Sugg’s projections are excessive – do we really need ocean waves splashed on the back of Eugene Lee’s set to convey a beach scene? — they occasionally add clarity, as when they help set location or time shifts. And they do a service in allowing us to see numerous photos of the real Anne Frank.

Director Oskar Eustis (the artistic director of The Public) has done some extraordinarily astute work with his actors, and the way he has integrated the puppets is fascinating.

And now back to that amazing scene between Sid, Mrs. Silver and Anne Frank. I can’t remember being so riveted by a scene, and then something intriguing happens. Patinkin starts to sing very quietly at the end of the scene. Then, as we transition into the next scene, Patinkin beings to sing full out in Yiddish, arms outstretched and voice quivering. It’s such a Tony Award-winning Mandy Patinkin moment that it all but shatters the spell of the previous scene.

That’s really the only moment that I didn’t find Compulsion utterly compelling.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Rinne Groff’s Compulsion continues through Oct. 31 in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $34-$73. Call 510 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org for information.

 

 

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