Christian Science Monitor
August 4, 1982
about German flying ace von Richthofen
seldom rises far off ground;
The Death of von Richthofen
as Witnessed From Earth
flying and songs. Written, composed, and directed by Des McAnuff.
By John Beaufort
In his first major
original work, Des McAnuff has imagined nothing less than the relationship
between the legend of Germany's greatest World War I flying ace and the rise of
Adolf Hitler. The nightmarish vision involves an awesome array of stage
gadgetry and special effects, including mobile aircraft. The dizzying
hypothesis needs only the Ronald Searle caricaturist's touch to invest the show
with the kind of craziness appropriate to its outsized dimensions and theatrical
In terms of substance,
''Von Richthofen'' is less impressive. Furthermore, because of its weight
- and length of takeoff - the surrealistic flying machine seldom rises far above
the earth from which the events are witnessed.
An audience assembling at
the Public / Newman Theater immediately undergoes a realistic baptism of fire
from the sound-effects department. This is followed by an opening scene
with bombs bursting in air and elsewhere on Douglas W. Schmidt's
realistic-fantastic 1918 setting. After the bombardment, a British aviator
(Robert Westenberg) descends from the skies and pauses mid-plunge to sing the
jaunty ''All I Wanted Was a Cup of Tea.'' He is accompanied on the piano
by the ghost of an Australian NCO (Marek Norman) who has perished in the
preceding barrage. Such irony and mordant humor serve as the principal
medium for the McAnuff message.
The main action of ''Von
Richthofen'' occurs in two sectors of the multilevel setting. The
sandbagged dugout on the left is occupied by Australian Pvts. Robert Buie
(Robert Joy) and William Evans (Mark Linn-Baker), whose Lewis machine gun may or
may not be operational. The inept Buie and Evans relieve the boredom and
terrors of battle by dreaming of their postwar careers as a team of bemedaled
vaudevillians and practice music-hall routines.
Across the stage,
separated by a scarred no-man's land, are von Richthofen's luxurious quarters,
scene of the events immediately preceding the Red Baron's fatal last
flight. As his own mythmaker, Mr. McAnuff embroiders the mystique
surrounding the German ace's 80th kill (after which he is being urged to retire
into folk legend and leadership).
No one can deny Mr.
McAnuff's flair for fantasy. ''Von Richthofen'' is an enormously complex
series of fragmented scenes and songs, with the musical numbers intrinsic to the
overall dramatic scheme. The generally agreeable, sometimes reminiscent
score ranges from music-hall patter songs and martial chorales to von
Richthofen's wistful memory serenade to Sarah Bernhardt.
In the central role, the
excellent Mr. Vickery matches the Prussian arrogance and antiheroic panache of
the blond Teuton with what Mr. McAnuff presents as a pragmatic realism.
Mr. Vickery's problem in delineating the role would seem to stem from Mr.
McAnuff's problem in fashioning it.
reflects a number of influences, from Bruce Bairnsfather to Brendan Behan, from
Brecht and Weill to Joan Littlewood and beyond. To say so is no reflection
on Mr. McAnuff's own inspiration. That this ''play with flying and songs''
seldom reaches the heights intended is not for want of genuine creativity or