‘Rose’ Reincarnates 1942 Nazi Germany, Leaving Viewers Paralyzed

Realistic portrayal of resistance movement brings history to life

LOCATION: Loeb Experimental Theater
DATES: October 20-22
DIRECTOR: Robert D. Salas ’08
PRODUCERS: Nina M. Catalano ’08 and David C. Lipson ’08

Almost immediately, in the weekend production of “The White Rose,” lights and sirens rip the audience from its seats and plunge it into the tense, electric atmosphere of 1942 Nazi Germany.

“The White Rose” opens in Nazi Germany, as brother and sister Sophie (played by Zoe K. Kawaller ’09) and Hans Scholl (Benjamin Curley) launch Resistance flyers from a University of Munich balcony. But the siblings can take no time to admire their papers as they float into the hands of curious students passing by, because they are immediately caught by the Gestapo.

The action thereafter is driven almost purely by dialogue. Sophie, Hans, and other student members calling themselves a part of “The White Rose” are interrogated at the Gestapo headquarters, where the slimy, power-hungry officer Mahler (Jeremy R. Steinemann ’08) persuades reluctant Gestapo Chief Mohr (W. Brian C. Polk ’09) to hold the captives indefinitely. Mohr, in fact, stays true to his promise and does not let his prisoners go free.

Instead he questions his young captives continuously until they relent from giving cloying denials and spouting naïvely righteous ideals (Sophie asks acerbically at one point, “White rose? Shouldn’t it be a red rose, if they’re leftists?”). Mohr’s prisoners soon begin to outrightly defy his authority, deliberately provoking intense reactions and ultimately pushing him into a full “reality check.”

The interrogation—led in the play by actor Polk, who brings an explosive energy to Mohr’s doubts and contradictions—is tense and thick with words, ideas, and inspiration. Polk ably acts as the central pivot of the play and is brilliantly convincing in his portrayal of an individual truly torn between bureaucracy and humanity.

Representing part of the former institution is Bauer (played by Susan C. Merenda ’07). Merenda makes an impression in a small but complex role, acting as a servicewoman who seems to usher the students into captivity but really acts to protect the students, as is made clear by the play’s end.

But the bureaucracy is most prominently personified by Steinemann’s Mahler. Although at times he seems to be just reciting lines, Steinemann succeeds overall in his portrayal of one example of a revolting “follower” of the System. Standing in stark contrast to Mahler’s devilish and truly exasperating persona is Kawaller’s Sophie Scholl, as the flawless angel who works hard to expose Mohr’s sense of humanity.

If Kawaller’s Sophie seems to succeed in her mission, it is largely because of the “father-daughter” dynamic, which is somewhat forcibly and awkwardly established in the script between Mahler and Sophie from the beginning of the play. (At one point, Sophie pointedly asks Mahler, “What is your father’s name? Robert?” to which Mahler responds, “My name is Robert.”) The sometimes clumsy script is ably repaired by the quality of the interaction between the two players who are truly exchanging essential ideas, Kawaller’s touchingly idealistic Sophie and Polk’s gruff realist Mohr.

Although Kawaller’s portrayal of the passionate and lost-in-the-clouds idealistic Sophie is moving, it can sometimes seem too “cute” for the intelligence one expects of an educated utopian. Particularly during the flashback scenes, Kawaller’s girly sweetness is difficult to reconcile with her character’s stature as a woman who is unafraid to die for her country.

Outside of Kawaller’s Sophie, actors playing the peripheral members of the White Rose group also delivered strong performances. For instance, Fernando A. Berdion Del Valle ’08, playing Alexander Schmorrell, is particularly enthralling during his interrogation, as he possesses Sophie’s idealism and further adds his own rebellious wit. After a good laugh, though, the audience is quickly brought back to the horror of the situation and is dramatically shaken to react emotionally to the scene.

While entertaining dialogue of “The White Rose” certainly entices viewers, director Robert D. Salas ’08 also emphasizes the real-life significance of the work beyond the stage, particularly during a scene in which the characters recite excerpts of authentic Resistance flyers.

“White Rose, 1942. White Rose, 1942.” The words are idealistic but manage to genuinely ring true: About God and free will, these words are spoken with such inspired passion that they become chilling. It is difficult to leave the theater without goose bumps, and it is even more difficult to step out of that Gestapo Headquarter, Munich, 1942.