Title: The Black Knight. Playwright: Angeli Primlani
At: Lifeboat Productions at City Lit, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. Tickets: $38; LifeboatChicago.com . Runs through: April 2
The pre-curtain music is Wagner at his most narcotic, the chronological setting is the Second World War in Europe and its villains, the always-reliable Nazis, but don't reach for your hankies yet. Playwright Angeli Primlani and the Hopepunk Theater ensemble (dba Lifeboat Productions) didn't wait patiently for two years just to serve us a portrait of international conflict depicted as a faceless video-game cartoon.
To begin, we are not in Berlin, but Prague, and the young rebels commanding our attention are not incarcerated in the death camps, but employed by the occupying Germans. Indeed, Albrecht von Haugennot long ago, a nerdy fiction-writing Dresden teenager who succumbed to the lure of a military career promoted in images of medieval Teutonic warriorsis now a captain in the SS administration's intelligence division, where he conducts covert surveillance on suspected traitors and spies.
At an officers' social one night in 1941, he encounters Katherine Lauter, once his hometown sweetheart, now a secretary not above flirting with her high-ranking bosses in exchange for off-ration luxuries. A romance is rekindled, but almost immediately we sense a tacit dissonance in their intimate dynamic, the secret of which will remain a mysteryto us, and perhaps, to them as welluntil the conclusion of a journey progressing from the question of who is spying on whom, to that of whether human beings trained in deception from childhood can ever believe one another again.
The Great Theater Shutdown of 2020 interrupted what appeared to be a revival of three-act, two-hours-plus, beginning-middle-and-end plays featuring clearly delineated plots and complex characters whose motives for their actionshowever inharmonious to our own sensibilitieshave the power to generate a surprising degree of empathy.
On one level, Primlani's carefully researched narrative recalls an espionage thriller, its suspense revolving on the evasive tactics of the Resistance fightersan interrogation, for example, where Albrecht's skill at improvising a plausible tale of ethnographical fancy is all that saves both Kathi and himself from arrest. On another, a text encompassing casual references to real-life particulars, such as the Terezin concentration facility whose surface tranquility succeeded in gulling a team of visiting Red Cross inspectors, check off enough factual data to satisfy Holocaust historians.
Viewing these distant events from the perspective of a world riddled by misinformation, paranoia and xenophobia, though, audiences seeking reassurance are more likely to respond to the play's exhortation to courage expressed, not in reckless deeds, but in kindness, compassion and resilience. We're all in this together, after all.