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Tiny theater in the District continues with Nu Sass’s cloistered take on A Bright Room Called Day. The troupe has turned the Caos on F art gallery into an artist’s apartment in 1930s Berlin for Tony Kushner’s historical bombast, with about 20 folding chairs for audiences tucked into the corners of this tight, tight set. Actors kick back on chaise lounges right in front of us, their sight lines often cutting through our heads, their voices bellowing in our ears. (This is a loud play, heavy on banging and shouting, and each outburst rattles the bones.) The Devil (John Stange) turns up, as he’s wont to do with Kushner, violating our personal space along with the characters’ sense of security.
Nu Sass is only the latest D.C. company to become infatuated with intimate spaces with limited seating. The troupe acknowledges the influence of Pinky Swear Productions and their excellent Tiny House Plays, which took the form of a house party on the former Boneyard Studios lot last fall. Fitting, then, that Karen Lange, Pinky Swear’s co-artistic director, stars in Bright Room as Agnes Eggling, a Berlin actress during the growing days of the Nazi party. Lange anchors Agnes’s transition from naive to powerless as a great deal happens around us.
Agnes despises the Nazis enough to take up the cause of Communism against them, but not enough to vacate her building, even as her artist friends fall into jeopardy. The pre-WWII timeline marches on, day by day; an assortment of artists and Communists fly through the apartment arguing nuances of political language, including Agnes’s Hungarian filmmaker boyfriend (Keegan Cassady, clad in eyepatch) and a fellow actress (Amber Gibson) with no qualms of taking Nazi or devil work.
That Agnes, an artist with activist tendencies, would stand idly by as Hitler ascends to power is the core tragedy at the play’s heart, encased within the larger tragedy. That core tragedy is not Nazism, but evil in general, which spans generations, thanks to Bright Room’s strangest and most polarizing invention. Meet Zillah Katz (Hannah Sweet), Agnes’s granddaughter, who lives in the 1980s and writes hellfire treatises against President Reagan. As brash in her political language as the 1930s crew is cerebral, Zillah steps into the action at key points, hammering home the idea that if you squint just right, Reagan could be Hitler.
Bright Room was first performed in 1985 at the height of the AIDS crisis. Through that lens, the play was a direct call against Reagan, not some ironic commentary on generations of political activism. A recent LA production used a script omitting Zillah’s interjections. But she’s a crucial component of Nu Sass’ take, as evidenced by “her” history exhibit in Caos’ halls that juxtaposes the Nazi Germany timeline with that of the Reagan presidency. The effect is of thumbing through a collection of 30-year-old liberal op-eds.
Considering the surrealism in which director Angela Pirko indulges, including the ghastly music and red lighting used to signal the Devil’s arrival and the abrasive sound design signaling second-act tension, Zillah can’t help but feel superfluous. In a show that so effectively uses closeness to unsettle, on-the-nose didacticism is just too close for comfort.