On the surface, “Walking to Buchenwald” is a quirky, comedic play about the typical drama surrounding a family trip. But a closer look reveals an exploration into gender, love, and what it means to be an American.
The show, presented by the Open Fist Theatre Company in Los Angeles, follows soon-to-be married couple Schiller and Arjay as they take Schiller’s aging parents on their first trip to Europe. Based on a real trip the playwright, Tom Jacobson, took with his family, the provocative comedy touches on hot-button topics like politics, gender, marriage, and what it’s like to be an American abroad when the president of the United States is pretty unpopular.
But the play gets really interesting when you learn Jacobson wrote Schiller and Arjay without any specific gender. So, depending on the night, the show is either about a male same-sex couple or a female same-sex couple.
“I definitely wanted to do that from the beginning because it does change the play and how we feel about the characters,” Jacobson says. “One of the reasons we encourage people to see the play more than once is to really engage in questions of how do we perceive a story based on who’s enacting the story.”
Since the actors are literally performing the same material, those changes and altered perceptions largely come from the audience’s expectations and implicit biases around gender.
The production doesn’t just give audiences the opportunity to rethink how they see the world — the actors also get a chance to collaborate and perform like never before.
Christopher Cappiello and Mandy Schneider both play Schiller, one-half of the show’s same-sex couple. Both actors brought their own choices and idiosyncrasies to the role, but for lighting and technical reasons, they had to hit identical marks and blocking to avoid confusing the other actors they performed with. This required some serious collaboration and the support of a very patient director, Roderick Menzies.
“There was no sense of competition or resentment. I think it made it stronger for everyone,” says Cappiello.
For Schneider, the role offered the rare opportunity to play a leading, multidimensional woman character. As an actress, she says she doesn’t often see roles for women that are this fleshed out.
“Many women in various plays, pieces, they don’t show every single emotion. And I feel like this is really exciting that I get to show everything —from sadness to anger to frustration,” Schneider says. “This is personally the first time I’ve played a woman like this in a long time.”
She even flew her family in from the Midwest to see the show. “I don’t know when I’ll get this kind of role again.”
In addition to gender-blind casting, it’s no small thing that Jacobson’s play features gay and lesbian characters in leading roles.
Both Cappiello and Amielynn Abellera, who plays Arjay opposite Mandy Schneider, identify as gay, and say they relished the rare opportunity to play gay characters. These compelling, diverse roles can go a long way toward improving representation.
“Visibility is really what’s brought the sense of a normal life to LGBTQ people. Coming Out Day, pride parades … that has been crucial to communicating to the public who we are,” Jacobson says. “It’s important to communicate that we’re not afraid and that we are in some ways like everyone else and in some ways very different, and unique, and worthy of being cherished.”
The show also offers a timely political discussion — particularly impressive given that it was written 14 years ago.
Jacobson took the trip with his family in 2003, just when the war in Iraq was kicking into gear. Much of that real-life trip included European locals telling his family exactly what they thought of America and President George W. Bush. Though Jacobson wrote the show to be evergreen, not mentioning the president or conflict by name, he expected the play to be produced quickly. It wasn’t. Once President Obama entered the office, the material seemed dated and less relevant, and it spent years on the shelf.
In 2016, hedging their bets on a Clinton victory in the presidential election, the Open Fist decided to do a reading of the play almost as a cautionary tale turned time capsule.
Then, Trump won.
“Instead, the play became more relevant and the theater said, ‘Let’s do a full production,'” Jacobson says.
The conflict and president are still unnamed, but the experience of being an American abroad while the country’s reputation takes a nose dive is more applicable than ever before — almost too eerily close for comfort.
“There are ways in which we’ve been afraid that current events might overtake the play,” Cappiello says. “Is this about to happen? And is our play now going to become a work of history, instead of hopefully a warning?”
“Walking to Buchenwald” explores these events and nuanced conversations with humor and heart, as only art can.
The show continues its run with the Open Fist Theatre Company in Los Angeles through Oct. 21.
While the play isn’t widely available in most of the country, Jacobson would love to see it run in other cities. If the show is something you’d like to bring to your area, he suggests reaching out to your local or community theaters to lobby for a staging.
“There’s so much that it’s hitting upon that’s happening right here and right now that’s extremely important,” Schneider says. “I hope as many people see it as possible.”
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