Larry Eisenberg is the winner of this year’s BroadwayWorld Award for Best Director of a Local Play, Lost in Yonkers, at Group Rep. He earned his MFA from CalArts, received a DramaLogue Award for the world premiere adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Stories for Children and has directed numerous productions at GRT. His favorites include Lost in Yonkers, Poor of New York, Trip to Bountiful, Over the River and Through the Woods and his original play, Nautilus, which was later turned into a feature film. He currently serves as one of the two Co-artistic Directors at The Group Rep. He is at present directing/rehearsing The Chinese Wall set to open January 26.
Tell us about the background for the play.
The play takes place in the year 220bc, in the court of the first Chinese Emperor, Tsin Zhe Huang Ti, called "The Son of Heaven, he who is always in the right." He has just completed construction of the Chinese Wall, "The Great Wall" that has been designed and constructed to keep the barbarians of the steppes from polluting and threatening the culture of China. In order to celebrate his great achievement he has invited a huge array of characters from literature and history to the Emperial Palace. Included are Romeo and Juliet, Napoleon Bonaparte, Philip of Spain, Pontius Pilate, Christopher Columbus, Don Juan Tenorio, Marcus Brutus, and the Ingenue of the Seine. Also invited, is an American Contemporary who tries to explain to the Emperor that in a modern, nuclear age, the building of walls is not only useless but very dangerous.
The Chinese Wall was written in 1946, essentially as an anti-fascist play. It explores the possibility that humanity was in danger of being completely eradicated by the (then recently invented) atomic bomb. It challenges long-held nationalist aspirations that we have seen recently take hold here in America and elsewhere in the world.
It was revised in 1955 and translated into English in 1961. I performed in a college production of The Chinese Wall in 1965 and have been aware of several productions at various LORT theatres throughout the years but for the most part it has never received the same critical stature and longevity of some of Frisch's other plays, which include his masterpiece, Biederman and the Firebugs.
Why did you choose it?
On the day Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, The Chinese Wall immediately jumped into my brain. The parallels are obvious; an obsessive, megalomaniacal narcissist pandering to nativist xenophobia, who thinks that shutting out, shutting down and shutting up whole segments of the world's population is a reasonable method for securing a nation, fits exactly the description of Max Frisch's Chinese Emperor. The play is a farce and it seems to be a direct reflection of the farce that is unfolding today in Washington, D.C.
Theatre is an expressive art form and The Chinese Wall is the perfect vehicle for expressing our revulsion of the current administration and a very precise lens for magnifying and ridiculing those bozo's who currently lead our country. It is also a warning. When you have morons brandishing nuclear buttons and using them to compare dicks, it provides endless entertainment and chuckling around the water cooler but it is also a warning that we may very well be on the brink of total annihilation.
What is the play's message?
You can't solve the problems of the 21st century using methods that became obsolete in the third century A.D.
What challenges does it require from you as director?
First there is the size of the production. There are over 40 speaking roles and 23 scenes. We had to come up with an approach to manage the breadth and scope of the script. We've got it down to 20 actors playing multiple roles and we decided to treat this as if it were a small theatre company telling the story rather than trying to actually represent the Chinese Court. Gender and ethnicity have been completely ignored and our entire approach removes the fourth wall so there is a great deal of interaction and direct communication with the audience.
When the play was originally mounted, nuclear proliferation was in its infancy and all the conversations were fresh. Today the nuclear conversation seems a bit dated and we've made a real effort to trim away some of the polemics. I've chosen to use multi-media as much as possible, both as a method for moving the story and also to highlight the current events that we want to inform our production. This show is as much about Donald Trump as it is about the Chinese Emperor so we've decided to use current references whenever possible. Fortunately, these are being supplied on an almost daily basis by the current administration.
As I say, we've trimmed down quite a bit of the text and tell much of this story using video and slides. Setting up and programming three digital projectors to operate simultaneously was very challenging but they have helped us keep things moving and pare down what might otherwise be a three hour extravaganza into what I hope will be an entertaining production that will come down in about an hour and forty-five minutes.
How does it fit into the mission for Group rep?
Lonny Chapman famously said, "First to entertain, and then to illuminate the human condition." Our patrons will tell us if it's entertaining. Given the chaos and constant consternation generated by the current occupant of the White house, there is little doubt that The Chinese Wall can "illuminate the human condition."
The Chinese Wall opens Friday, January 26 at 8:00 pm, runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 2:00 pm. Talk-back Sundays: February 11 and February 25 after the matinee. January 26 – March 11. Admission: $25. Seniors & Students $20. Groups 10+: $15. Tickets & information:www.thegrouprep.com or (818) 763-5990. Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Boulevard, North Hollywood