At one point in Australian troupe Back to Back Theatre’s production of “Ganesh Versus the Third Reich”, the uber-abled actor who stands in contrast to what is PC-termed ‘differently abled” fellow cast members, points accusingly at the audience and scolds, “You’re just here to see a bunch of freaks!”
Truth to tell, though the audience was obviously heavily populated with physically disabled theater-goers, it’s likely that my husband and I were not the only ones who walked in not knowing what to expect from this production, nor that the cast members were “disabled” when off the stage. “Ganesh Versus the Third Reich” is a provocative title, after all, and any production taking on such material would have to be mindful of many sacred paths the subject matter would naturally meander through, from Holocaust to Hindu Gods. Add to that list of sacred cows, the delicacy of what it means to live in a culture where words like “retarded”, “disabled”, and “differently abled” slug it out . This latter is the world that everything Back to Back Theatre touches must navigate.
While the premise of the work was the imagined re-appropriation of the swastika from the Nazis and back to Hindu worshippers, it was Dr. Mengele who above all sets the stage for this production. Where in recent human history can we find a more unabashed pursuit of “defectives” for heinous experimentation than at his hands? Who can trump his brutality in defining a disability as a means to make someone more vulnerable to wonton human cruelty?
Bruce Gladwin, Artistic Director of Back to Back Theatre explains in the program notes, “The making of Ganesh Versus the Third Reich was an investigation into issues about appropriation: the performance explores who has the authority to tell stories, and how- via symbols, rituals and the like- stories can be told.”
We do meet Dr. Mengele in this production, as well as Ganesh and other Hindu deities. We meet several actors who are asked to play Hitler, one an S.S. Guard who is admonished to consider it a promotion. We see a highly imaginative set of super-sized shower curtains with cutouts and designs that take us from train, to forest, to Hitler’s hideaways and more.
The actors at the core of Back to Back theater give us a good romp. We are at one moment watching the story of Ganesh and then quickly watching the behind-the-scenes conflicts between the actors of different abilities. We become hyper-aware of how these differences affect our sensibilities.
In the end, the total self-consciousness of the work makes it possible for all self-consciousness to be lost. We, the audience, become part of the story. Is the fully abled actor/director with a martinet style a stand-in for our tendency to see the other actors as different? We laugh at the actors resistance to die in a proper fashion, and laugh all the harder when their martinet director takes the death dive as displayed to him by his resistors.
Back to Back Theatre explains their mission as follows, “".. Some of us identify with being outsiders. Some of us don’t. We wonder: what would we be outside of? We give everything, and everyone a go. We hope you will feel intoxicated by our shows, that our shows will entertain you, that our shows will make you question things."
We were entertained. We did question—many times. We left breathing a different air than we were before we walked in. That’s intoxication. That’s a job well-done.
photos: Jeff Busby