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  • Ganesh Versus the Third Reichby Back to Back Theatre
  • Patrick McKelvey
Ganesh Versus the Third Reich. By Back to Back Theatre. Directed by Bruce Gladwin. Under the Radar Festival. Newman Theater, New York City. 9 January 2013.

Back to Back Theatre—an ensemble comprised of actors with intellectual disabilities—staged an ambivalent meditation on disability and theatrical labor in Ganesh Versus the Third Reich. Oscillating between fictionalized reenactments of rehearsal and scenes from a play-within-the-play, Ganeshinterrogated, but did not upend, the enduring assumption that disability robs people of their mimetic faculties, the capacity to do the work of theatrical representation. By eroding clear distinctions between the environments of rehearsal and production, challenging spectators’ investments in reading the disabled actor as agentive, and refusing to conflate mimetic failure with disability and mimetic success with ability, the performance cultivated a disability politics predicated on the pleasures of indeterminacy within the disabled actor’s capacity for representing the non-selfsame.

The play-within-the-play concerns the eponymous elephant-headed Hindu “god of overcoming obstacles” (Brian Tilley) and his mission to rescue the swastika from its circulation within Nazi visual culture. By repatriating the swastika, Ganesh hopes to have his human head—decapitated during a battle with his own father—restored to him. In his pursuit, Ganesh encounters the likes of Adolf Hitler, Nazi physician Josef Mengele, and Levi, a young man with intellectual disabilities. This quest is narrated by his chronicler, Visnu, played by Luke Ryan, the only nondisabled ensemble member and the only actor who did not play “himself” in the scenes that fictionalized Ganesh’s development and rehearsal process. (In these scenes, Ryan played the role of David, the benevolent-turned-authoritarian director.)

The first half of the show staged rehearsal and production as discrete environments, but the scenic transitions dissolved the boundaries between these spheres. Lighting flooded the stage, but Brian hesitated to remove his Ganesh mask for a moment too long, remaining in the German countryside while a rehearsal studio enveloped him. Simon (Simon Laherty) gathered the scrim upon which the German landscape had been projected, but his diligence left him in the wings while the ensemble circled up on stage for notes with the director. By dissolving clear boundaries between the staging of rehearsal and production, and attributing such dissolution to the failures of its disabled actors/characters, Ganeshmarked the capacity to maintain the show’s meta-theatrical frame as among its primary concerns.

Ganeshexplored the extent to which disabled actors’ “choices” are in fact choices by tethering the success of representation to linguistic virtuosity. For example, following the first production scene in which the actors spoke in German while English subtitles were projected behind them, Simon complimented Brian by informing him that his “German is impeccable … [he] could work in Berlin.” Audiences rewarded Simon’s delivery with ripples of laughter. Some laughed at the idea that verbal competence offered sufficient criteria upon which to adjudicate an actor’s skill; yet other laughter responded to the perceived disparity between Simon’s deadpan, nearly affectless delivery and the audience’s expectations regarding how an actor might deliver a line remarking on verbal virtuosity. Rather than responding to anxieties about disabled actors’ mimetic capacities by insisting that people with disabilities are capable of doing representation, Ganeshridiculed the desirability of making such a claim.

Midway through the play, David, the director, accosted the audience, insisting that spectators had elected to attend the performance in order see “a freak show.” This moment of address occurred within a rehearsal scene in which the distance between actor and character for the disabled members of the ensemble was especially tenuous; in the rehearsal scenes, the disabled actors played themselves. Breaking the theatrical frame as if breaking out of character, David turned to the cast and noted that he would have attacked the audience had there been one present. By directly addressing an audience that was both there and not there, David buttressed rather than undermined Ganesh’s theatrical frame. Whereas similar slippages by disabled members of the cast might, in Ganesh’s meta-theatrical dramaturgy, have indexed failure—slipping from character to actor—David...


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pp. 578-580
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