Will Hardyman

As the world reflects on the centennial of World War I, Horizon Theatre Rep presents "Culture Shock 1911-1922," an evening of German Expressionist plays that were born of the age that gave birth to it. The production, conceived and directed by Rafael De Mussa, includes "Sancta Susanna" (1911) by August Stramm, translated by Henry Marx; "The Guardian of the Tomb" (1916) by Franz Kafka (Kafka's only play), translated by J. M. Ritchie; "The Transfiguration" (1919) by Ernst Toller, translated by Edward Crankshaw; "Ithaka" (1914) by Gottfried Benn, translated by J.M. Ritchie and "Crucifixion" (1920) by Lothar Schreyer, translated by Mel Gordon. Performances will be September 4 to 21 (opens September 7) at Access Theater, 380 Broadway in TriBeCa.

The production adopts the conceit of a group of soldiers, cooped up together in a bunker, who find the plays in books and manuscripts and begin reading them aloud, which leads to the plays being acted as if they were "bunker theater." The stage action is accompanied from time to time with period images and video, which serve to ground the plays in history and to illustrate unfamiliar terminology. There is music from the period including compositions by Ligetti and Holst and even an ancient Hebrew song, "King David," which is played on a lyre.

All five plays were responses to the basic apocalyptic mood and agitated spiritual state of early 20th century in Europe. Director Rafael De Mussa says, "There is a common thread. Each play, in its own way, speaks about God to a generation that was crushed spiritually by the war." Throughout, there are many biblical references, a sense of spiritual agitation and a view of an apocalypse coming.

The soldiers of the production are not specific to any nationality and the message is meant to be universal. Even though the plays were all written by Germans, most of the visuals in the production are Italian, French and English and while the settings are adapted to "Bunker Theater," the plays themselves are not tampered with. Most are short one-acts and are presented intact. However, in Toller's "The Transfiguration," only the third station of a longer work is being used.

De Mussa had grappled with four of these plays in two workshop productions that launched Horizon Theatre Rep in the Spring of 2001. He resolved to return to them on the centennial of WWI. His goal was to set aside Expressionist style, to concentrate on the text and to place the plays within the context of the times. De Mussa feels that the plays are a product of the age that produced them, that they link us to the past and the past to us, and that in that sense they speak to us with extraordinary directness and authority. The impact is unsettling, he observes, adding, "Expressionism always tries to unsettle you."

"Culture Shock 1911-1922" is conceived and directed by Rafael De Mussa. The acting ensemble is Joyce Laoagan, Wes Hager, Will Hardyman, Wilton Yeung, Josh Wolonick and Rafael De Mussa. Lighting design is by Daniel B. Barbee. Multimedia programmer is Aristides F. Li. Set design is by Joseph Kremer. Costume design is by Amanda Lieber and Rafael De Mussa.

Horizon Theatre Rep (www.HTRonline.org), founded and led by Rafael De Mussa, is an Off-off-Broadway theater company dedicated to seldom-produced masterpieces of world theater. Since 2001, it has produced 15 mainstage productions including "Benito Cereno" by Robert Lowell, "The Misunderstanding" and "Caligula" by Camus, "Vassa Zheleznova" by Gorky, "Nights Of Wrath" by Armand Salacrou, "Powder Keg" by Dejan Dukovski, "Man Without Shadows" by Sartre, "In The Solitude Of Cotton Fields" by Bernard-Marie Koltès, "3XPirandello," three plays about betrayal by Pirandello and "The Balcony" by Genet. The company endeavors to find a contemporary idiom to tell early and mid-20th century stories and to bridge the generation gap. It wants its audiences to see its plays with new eyes and understand them in new contexts. The company also strives to give emerging artists "the opportunity to take risks, to excel, and to make their mark."

Reviewers have repeatedly praised director Rafael De Mussa for his idealism and his insight into modern classics. Reviewing "3X Pirandello" in 2000, Irene Backelenick (Backstage) commended him for his "unerring direction" and deemed the production "fascinating." Louise Gallanda, writing in Fringe Propaganda, agreed, stating, "Director Rafael De Mussa is to be commended for his skillful mounting and understanding of Pirandello's mind." Theatre Is Easy called "Caligula" (2008) "What off-Broadway should be." Reviewing "The Balcony" in 2013, Steve Capa wrote in New England Entertainment Digest, "De Mussa’s vision is well executed. He’s grappled with this bête noir of the modern canon quite well. We’re grateful for a company that takes on such a work like this. I’ll look for them next season.”