Dallas — Simone de Beauvoir once wrote “In order for the artist to have a world to express he must first be situated in this world, oppressed or oppressing, resigned or rebellious, a man among men. But at the heart of his existence he finds the exigency which is common to all men; he must first will freedom within himself and universally.”
Jaymes Gregory’s re-make/re-interpretation of Charlie Chaplin’s film The Great Dictator, now playing at the Festival of Independent Theatres, is a courageous and beautiful play that shows us the questions of what men in power are capable of—and how to deal with it as an artist and as a human being are as timely today as in 1940 when the movie premiered.
First and foremost, Steph Garrett’s duel portrayal of the Jewish barber and Hynkel, the dictator of the fictional country of Tomania, is incredible. These were the roles originally played by film great Charlie Chaplin. Garrett both honors the original and remakes it into a character all her own.
Garrett’s physicality and presence is astounding. Her running gags throughout the play and individual scenes (especially Chaplin’s famous “Globe Scene”) grabs the audience by the(ir)…attention. Two aphorisms underlie the play’s universal themes: Acton’s “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” and Kevin Spacey’s character Frank Underwood in House of Cards “Everything is about sex, except for sex. Sex is about power.”
Garrett’s range is fascinating to watch. The tenderness she displays in her portrayal of the Barber (in Chaplin’s original a veteran of the first World War, reluctant to believe the country he fought for could turn against its own people) is both instantly moving and subtly delicate. For those who have viewed the final scene of the movie version before, plan on bringing twice the amount of tissues you usually require. Garrett’s speech is a symphony of emotion with a crescendo that will leave you emotionally gutted by the possibilities and disappointments of humanity.
Additionally, Leslie Patrick does an admirable job in several roles, especially as the barber’s love interest and Hynkel’s general Schultz. The costume design by Jamie Little Puente add the necessary contrast for all the characters as the actors are constantly shifting from one role to another (and important undertone in the play and reminiscent of Zimbardo’s “Stanford Prison Experiment”). The direction by Jaymes Gregory, assisted by his son Jonah Gregory, keeps a tight rein on the action of the play, which is necessary due to the vast amount of choreographed movement on the stage required. Additional effects add depth to the play’s message.
The almost requisite question then needs to be asked: what to make of art such as this in the “current political climate?” As this is not a political magazine per se, let us simply ask some questions to illuminate commonalities which the reader may meditate upon at their leisure: What is it about power that attracts certain people and how do free men and women respond? Do the worst rise to the top in politics?
Aside from body count, how do you differentiate the morality between a U.S. President that brags of “just grab them by the pussy,” a German dictator that believes that the Sudetenland is his to take, a Russian dictator that entraps half of Germany behind the Berlin Wall, or a representative body that states “all men are created equal” followed by a founding government charter that then classifies some as two-thirds of a person?
Poet and politician Vaclav Havel once said “People who live in the post-totalitarian system know only too well that the question of whether one or several political parties are in power, and how these parties define and label themselves, is of far less importance than the question of whether or not it is possible to live like a human being.”
Perhaps there is some answer from Chaplin. When questioned on his politics upon attempting to re-enter the United States he said “I am an individual and a believer in liberty. That is all the politics I have…I don't want to create a revolution—I just want to create a few more films.”
The Great Dictator continues in the following blocks:
- 2 p.m. Saturday, July 29
- 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 4
- 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 5
Read our interview with Jaymes Gregory, Steph Garrett and Leslie Patrick here
See more info about the 2017 Festival of Independent Theatres schedule here.