Elevate Difference

Spy Garbo (3/6/11)

New York, New York

Sheila Schwartz’s Spy Garbo, an innovative multi-media production, takes place in history’s limbo, the eternal resting place of three prominent twentieth century political players. The first is Generalissimo Francisco Franco Bahamonde, played by Steven Rattazzi with a perfect mix of pomp, arrogance, and affability. The fascist leader of Spain from 1939 to 1975, Franco is displeased by his now-tarnished image and presents himself as the eternal victim, a peacemaker who did everything in his power to remain neutral during the war, a misunderstood genius who should be lionized rather than condemned.

His quest for adulation brings him into contact with two additional attention seekers. The first is Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, enacted by Steven Hauck with the stiff upper lip and rigid bearing often associated with the Third Reich. At one time, Canaris served as Hitler’s Military Intelligence Chief, but his ultimate betrayal of the Fuhrer led the Gestapo to execute him in 1945.

Franco’s second competitor is Harold Adrian Russell, aka Kim Philby—played by the excellent Chad Hoeppner with brash charm that slowly dissolves as he descends into alcoholism—another double agent who ultimately defected to the former Soviet Union where he penned the 1968 bestseller, My Secret War.

Hovering over the three is the never seen but frequently referenced Spy Garbo, a real-life Spanish double agent—identified post war as Juan Pujol Garcia—whose espionage served both Britain and Germany.

There’s much to recommend Spy Garbo, not the least being the 130-foot video screen that surrounds the audience. Throughout the production, archival footage weaves images of Hitler, Franco, and 1940’s film stars into a seamless background that is simultaneously eerie and intriguing.

“Film makes history immortal,” Franco muses as he turns toward the screen and it is clear that that he longs for the adoration that seems exclusive to movie icons. As Philby and Canaris join Franco’s lament, a horrifying truth is revealed: while most of us will recall the names of film legends decades after their passing, few will recall the spies or military strategists who orchestrate our theaters of war.

And that’s the problem with Spy Garbo. Although audiences without deep knowledge of World War II can certainly understand the overall thrust of the play, those lacking a thorough grasp of the period will miss the nuances of the production and will likely find the dialogue—sequential monologues by each actor—overly diffuse. Indeed, while it is fascinating to see the three men vie for a spot on history’s top ten list, the play would have been more successful had it framed the action with hard facts about the war.

A short narration at the beginning, for example, might have offered an overview, explaining a bit about the era. In addition, a narrator might also have linked the global conflict of sixty years ago to contemporary warfare, bridging the distance between then and now.

That said, Spy Garbo is a provocative look at the male ego and a well-directed, beautifully acted, and well-staged production. And, since the historical record is typically written by the victor, Spy Garbo underscores the subjectivity of truth, reminding us that who does the telling is as important as what we’re told about the when, where, and how of life’s ongoing dramas.

Spy Garbo will run through April 11, 2011 at 3-LD Art and Technology Center, 80 Greenwich Street, New York, NY. Tickets are $30 and can be ordered by calling the box office at 212.352.3101.

Written by: Eleanor J. Bader, March 20th 2011