Discussion of controversial poster draws little feedback

NASHUA – A poster promoting a play about Nazi-era German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler sparked controversy last week after an alderman expressed outrage over the display of a swastika.

The poster depicts a silhouette of the German conductor, baton in hand, standing beside a red curtain decorated with a black swastika contained in a white circle.

“Only when you stop to read the text of the display, as I did, do you recognize it is something other than a Nazi gathering place,” Fred Teeboom, who lost family members in the Holocaust, wrote to Yellow Taxi Productions after he saw a poster for the Ronald Harwood play “Taking Sides” displayed outside the city-owned Hunt Building.

The play opened Friday at the Hunt Building and runs through Sept. 27. It’s being directed by Josiah George.

Teeboom, who saw the first act of the two-act play on Friday and the second act on Saturday night, attended a Saturday roundtable held between the matinee and the evening performance Saturday.

“The acting was superior, but the play was disappointing,” Teeboom said, asserting that the playwright would have done better to write about someone better known than Furtwangler.

Teeboom was also disappointed that during the discussion led by scholars Paul Vincent of Keene State College and Phil Pajakowski of St. Anselm College, along with Jonathan McPhee, the new conductor of the Nashua Symphony, no one in the audience seemed interested in discussing the poster controversy.

Indeed, the roughly 20 people attending the afternoon show sat spellbound during a riveting performance that explored the relationship between art and politics.

The central question the play asks is whether Furtwangler was a Nazi or simply an artist who cared only about his music.

The play takes place in Germany in 1946 after the Americans have arrived to root out Nazi party members, a process known as “denazification.”

“Whatever I did, I did to prove that art means more than politics,” Furtwangler tells the U.S. Army officer, Steve Arnold (played by Doug Chilson), during a cross-examination intended to find the conductor (played by David White) guilty of supporting the Nazi party.

In the play, Arnold is determined to prove Furtwangler guilty, despite mixed evidence and the sympathies of his secretary, Emmi Straube (played by Katie Rolph) and his subordinate Army officer David Wills (played by John Decareau).

The conductor has helped many Jewish musicians escape Germany. He has also conducted at Hitler’s birthday celebration and allowed himself to serve as poster boy for the Third Reich.

Arnold, the U.S. Army officer, can’t forget the horrors he saw at Bergen Belsen or the smell of burning flesh from several miles away. And he’s determined to make Furtwangler pay for those atrocities.

Indeed, Arnold tells his subordinates that he’s the best man for the job.

“Because I am, to put it at its best, totally uncultured, I see a man,” he says, boiling his investigation down to one question: “Why did he stay in a situation? He did everything in his power to resist except get the hell out.”

It’s a question that remains unanswered all the way to the curtain call, and afterward.

“It’s a high-quality production, a brilliant play,” McPhee observed during the discussion after the play. “From an artist’s viewpoint, it’s enormously complex.”

McPhee, who studied at the Juilliard School and Royal Academy in London, said Furtwangler is considered a musical genius, a brilliant conductor whose work reveals intuition and mysticism.

But the conductor was also a failed composer and jealous competitor who rarely, if ever, had a kind word to say about his musical peers.

“What can be learned from a story like this? Does music go beyond the bad parts of humanity? Where does music come from?” McPhee mused, adding, “I’m so glad somebody wrote the play in such a way that all sides are represented.”