By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Kyle Swenson
By David Villano
By Kyle Swenson
By John Thomason
By Michele Eve
As you might expect, this makes for an unbalanced drama. I'm not sure it's the playwright's intention, but we root for Furtwangler because Arnold is such a poorly drawn adversary. He doesn't see the world in shades of gray, yet the era he lives in demands he navigate a gradient of morality. Harwood has set him up as the villain here and, if the idea is to stage a debate about taking sides, as the title suggests, it doesn't work. The choice is already made.
Director Rafael de Acha has cast James Samuel Randolph, a black actor, as Arnold. De Acha told me that, while it's not impossible that an African-American major would head such a hearing in that time period, his intention in choosing Randolph was, quite justifiably, to pick the best actor for the role. Randolph's imposing physical presence, in stark contrast to the more compact Bill Yule as Furtwangler, was forefront in the director's mind. While I'm entirely in favor of colorblind casting and I am a huge fan of de Acha, I can report that Randolph's presence adds a layer of obfuscation that the play cannot really carry.
While sitting through Taking Sides, I spent a great deal of time pondering other questions. Has Arnold actually been so affected by seeing concentration camp victims that he feels justified in going after Furtwangler regardless of the degree of the conductor's participation in the Nazi regime? Or has his experience with Jim Crow laws in America in the '40s influenced his views? Most important, does he understand that, by lumping all Germans together as evil, he is doing to them what white Americans have always done to blacks? These issues are interesting, but I'm not sure the play can handle the extra weight.
At the New Theatre, the balance tilts even further in favor of Furtwangler because of several odd acting dynamics. Yule plays the conductor with a crisp, stylized manner that draws on our stereotype of Germans as punctilious yet reveals minute personality traits in inventive ways. Randolph, on the other hand, is less subtle. It's possible that no one could carry off this role effectively, but Randolph -- especially given his imposing physical presence -- would be more powerful if he underplayed Arnold rather than presenting him as an overbearing oaf. The rest of the cast is great, but the production often feels like a battle of wills between the acting styles, with Yule winning hands down. Not that I'm taking sides.
Written by Ronald Harwood. Directed by Rafael de Acha. Starring James Samuel Randolph, Bill Yule, Iris Delgado, Heath Kelts, Ramon Gonzalez-Cuevas, and Edna Schwab. Through March 14. New Theatre, 65 Almeria Ave., Coral Gables, 305-443-5909.