Review by Brittany Crowell
“Do you know how many people died building the Great Pyramid at Giza?” Major Taggert asks, in a direct address to the audience at the end of the two-hour play.
The aptly named Epic Theater Ensemble examines the question of human cost associated with technological advancement in their new piece, The Winning Side, which explores Wernher von Braun’s contribution to the US space race, as well as his time as an SS officer with the Nazi party. Playwright James Wallert, director Ron Russell, and the Epic Theater Ensemble worked with a team of students, artists, and researchers at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum to develop this piece over a four-year gestation period. What results is something thought-provoking, educational, and entertaining.
The piece explores von Braun’s story through two timelines, documenting the pivotal moments leading back from the moon landing, while alternately moving forward from the early years of WWII, imagining von Braun’s fictional relationship with French actress and supporter of the resistance, Margot Moreau. At the close of the play, the two timelines meet in the final and penultimate moment in question, the moment at the end of WWII when the Americans bring Van Braun and over 1,500 other German scientists to work in America and aid the U.S. in advancing our technology and winning the Cold War.
The play asks the audience in its direct address, dramaturgy, and the talkback facilitated by the company after the performance: at what point is the sacrifice worth it? Are there developments that are worth the cost they may take on human lives? It brought to my mind other moments when science blinded itself to politics, our current political climate, American exceptionalism, and the changing face of many industries in light of the #metoo movement. This piece leaves no lack of questions about both the world of WWII and the Cold War, but also its relationship to today and what we value higher, science (success or even art) or humanity?
The diverse cast of four brought charm, humanity and turmoil to the characters’ conflicts and passions. Special commendations should be awarded to Devin E. Haqq, who played no less than 15 characters with distinction and clarity. The audience members around me, who were alive to remember these figures at that time, whispered their approval of Haqq’s historical accuracy in portrayals of such monoliths as Lyndon B. Johnson, President Kennedy, and Walt Disney.
The design of the piece was wonderfully sparse and contained informative as well as well-designed projections and select costume, set and prop pieces to help guide us through the shifting worlds and timelines of the piece. Similarly, the lighting and sound helped us to move between these worlds in addition to giving us distinct moments of audience address as the performers called us into the beginning of each new act, a technique familiar to the epic theater movement and Brecht’s specific style of political theater.
This piece, in both its historical accuracy and its fictionalized moments, does an amazing job of posing the questions and encouraging the conversation and discourse that Epic Theater is hoping will accompany it. Just as the piece encourages further research into the U.S.’s acquisition of Nazi scientists, qualified by the ideal of “intellectual reparations,” I wonder if the piece’s fictionalized von Braun is a true representative of the “Columbus of Space” that existed in the late 50s and early 60s. The pieces asks the audience to question more fully who this man was and if he is deserving of sympathy or fame. As von Braun says during the piece, “Some truths are too big to be told with a resuscitation of facts,” and I feel this was truly embraced by Epic Theater in their researched and imagined depiction of him.
THE WINNING SIDE – Written by James Wallert; Directed by Ron Russell
WITH: Melissa Friedman (Margo Moreau); Devin E. Haqq (NASA Launch Control/BBC Reporter/Neil Armstrong/Photographer/Vice-President Lyndon Johnson/President John F. Kennedy/J. Lee Thompson/Army Command/Creon/Walt Disney/Director/Heinrich Himmler/Wiesemann/Pierre/SS Rocket Command); Sullivan Jones (Wernher von Braun) and Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr. (Major Taggert);
Sets and projections by Chika Shimizu; lighting by Cat Tate Starmer; costumes by Betsy Rugg-Hinds; sound by Ron Russell; production stage manager, Molly Minor Eustice; assistant stage manager, Caitlyn Annelise Dominguez; animator, Sho Hanafusa; dialect coaching, Diego Daniel Pardo; technical director, Jacob Womack; production manager, Caitlin O’Rourke; wig design by Briana Capo. Presented by Epic Theater Ensemble, Ron Russell, executive director; Melissa Friedman, co-artistic director; James Wallert, co-artistic director; Bria Holness, development manager; Debra Morris, operations manager; Christina Gonzalez, alumni producing associate; David Naranjo, communications associate. At Theater Row, Acorn Theater, www.epictheaterensemble.com/the-winning-side. Through October 28. Running time: 2 hours, with one 10 minute intermission.