New York Times
July 25, 1982

The Red Baron Taxis to Center Stage


One musical number takes place during a mustard gas attack, set to dignified waltz-time. Others occur in slimy, rat-infested trenches during aerial bombardments. Several happen in mid-air; one jaunty tune is sung with aplomb by an Englishman plummeting from 7,000 feet in a free-fall. ''Quite the view from here, what scenery,'' he muses before crashing headfirst into a bomb crater.

Whatever else might be said about ''The Death of Von Richthofen As Witnessed From Earth'' - described by its creator as ''a play with flying and songs'' - it is hardly your ordinary everyday musical. Then again, Des McAnuff - who wrote the book, music and lyrics and is directing the production as well - is hardly your ordinary everyday aspiring playwright.

Despite his relatively tender age (he has been 30 for all of a month), Mr. McAnuff has written close to a dozen plays and musicals, directed Shakespeare to considerable acclaim, and has already been hailed in some quarters as one of the most innovative upcoming theatrical talents of his generation. ''He will be a major director,'' promises Joseph Papp at whose Public Theater ''Von Richthofen'' opens on Thursday. ''He's on his way, and I feel he's going to go really far.'' Such is Mr. Papp's confidence in Mr. McAnuff's work that he is spending some $500,000 on a lavish production - more than he has spent on any show since ''A Chorus Line.'' Set in World War I, with Manfred Von Richthofen - the dreaded Red Baron of Germany's Flying Aces -as its hero, the play is an ambitious blend of such seemingly disparate elements as the rise of Nazism and a score that encompasses period cabaret music and the influence of Bruce Springsteen. Its characters range from two Australian gunners hoping to survive the war and become music hall sensations in America to a buffoonish Hermann Goering zooming around overhead in an observation balloon.

Mr. McAnuff's directorial work has already been seen by many New Yorkers in such shows as last summer's New York Shakespeare Festival production of ''Henry IV, Part I'' at the Delacorte and in the Dodger Theater production of ''Mary Stuart'' at the Public earlier last year. One of Mr. McAnuff's own creations, ''Leave It to Beaver Is Dead,'' has been seen there as well, but ''Von Richthofen'' marks the first major production of an original work.

He has been working on this opus for more than six years. ''I kept writing a draft and putting it away,'' he reports. ''I really did want to take my time and do it right.'' Originally conceived as a play about the Flying Aces called ''Goggles and Feathers and Wax,'' it evolved gradually into its present form as Mr. McAnuff became more and more interested in Von Richthofen, both because of his research and as a result of conversations with his own grandfather, who had fought in World War I.

''I was fascinated by the idea of somebody who's shot down 80 people being the greatest hero of his time,'' Mr. McAnuff explains. ''Von Richthofen was like Mick Jagger, Teddy Kennedy and John Glenn all rolled into one. I was interested in all those heroic qualifications he had - he was handsome, a strong leader, a Baron. The character seemed paradoxical to me - the whole idea of a 19thcentury Baron becoming a killing machine. I also think that placing characters in violent situations allows you to find out about them.''

Mr. McAnuff has used this character as a vehicle to explore larger themes. ''This is less a play about Von Richthofen's death than it is a play about a kind of failure to deal with the future and do something about it,'' he says. ''I've always been fascinated by the question of why nobody stopped the emergence of the Nazi party. There must have been people who could see it coming. One of the things the play is about is leadership. There is this popular assumption that the maniacs are going to be stopped by the good people, but it isn't necessarily true. It's everybody's responsibility.

''I think Von Richthofen's dilemma is a certain kind of paralysis that sets in among people of conscience. In order to stop somebody who's some kind of fanatic, you have to become a kind of fanatic in your own way. People who don't have the problem of questioning themselves can be frighteningly efficient. Von Richthofen was the kind of man people expected to stop the fanatic elements in post-World War I Germany, the Nazi party being the most hideous example - but they didn't.''

The playwright readily admits he has used history only as a starting point, however. ''This is complete fiction,'' he says, ''as all histories in theater are. It's not a documentary by any means. All the people in it existed, but I've taken liberties. I don't feel a great responsibility to portray things as they really happened, because who knows how they really happened. With history, objective truth is not necessarily achievable. Probably this play will tell you more about me and my time than it does about Von Richthofen and his time.''

Mr. McAnuff acknowledges his debt to past masters. ''Not that I studied them specifically for this play, but I was probably influenced by all kinds of people - Shakespeare, Brecht, Marlowe, Wolfgang Hildesheimer. I'm not trying to create a new form; I haven't spent a lot of time trying to invent new dramatic structures or esthetics, as in the avant-garde. I'm more interested in content than in creating new forms. I'm definitely trying to plug into tradition. Tradition doesn't need to be a bad word, as it's come to seem to some people. Saying that you have to race off and do something innovative seems to me silly -to ignore 2,000 years of work you can learn from.''

But if some of his historical material is familiar, the playwright has certainly shaped it in his own inimitable way. Such flights of fantasy are nothing new for Mr. McAnuff, whose first play - written while he was still in high school - was an elaborate science fiction musical about a domed city of the future. Born in Illinois, Mr. McAnuff grew up primarily in and around Toronto. His father, an Irishman who had fought as a Spitfire pilot in World War II, was killed in an automobile accident six months before his son was born; when his mother remarried, it was to a Scotsman who had also been an R.A.F. pilot during the war.

Music was Mr. McAnuff's major preoccupation during his early years, when he played clarinet, saxophone, recorder and guitar. He wrote songs and sang in a rhythm-and-blues band and until the end of his high school career, he says, he was ''far more interested in contemporary pop music'' than in theater.

''But in my last year of high school I decided to write a musical to be produced as the school play. The theater arts teacher agreed, not believing for a second that I would sit down and do it. By this time I had realized I didn't want to spend my life in rock bands. The more I hung out in clubs, the more I realized it wasn't what I enjoyed doing, although I found I could make quite a bit of money at it. In fact it was more lucrative than anything else I would do for a number of years,'' he adds ruefully.

And so he sat down and wrote his science fiction musical, which was called ''Urbania.'' ''It was hours long, had a cast of 50 and about 30 songs,'' Mr. McAnuff notes with a smile. It was also ''a tremendous success. There were even ticket scalpers,'' he says with some pride. ''We made an album, and the following September we reproduced it at a professional theater in Toronto. It ran for something like 11 weeks.''

Mr. McAnuff plunged eagerly into a second play, only to discover ''that I didn't know what I was doing. We put it on at the school, and I guess it was successful, but it was clear to me that I really had to learn, not so much because of other people's reactions to it as my own. I think the failure of that play was far more important than the success of the other.''

After six months of intensive study on his own, ''seeing everything I could see and reading everything I could read,'' Mr. McAnuff enrolled in the Ryerson Theater Department in Toronto, where he wrote four plays his first year. Among them was ''Leave It to Beaver Is Dead,'' which has since received professional productions in Canada and in a workshop at the Public Theater in 1979.

Mr. McAnuff went on to be the assistant artistic director at the Toronto Free Theater, where he continued to write plays as well as creating the score for ''The Collected Works of Billy the Kid,'' later seen at the Folger Theater in Washington.

Mr. McAnuff originally moved to New York ''as a perennial student and consumer of theater,'' he says. ''I didn't really expect to stay, but I got a job at the Chelsea Theater Center, directing 'The Crazy Locomotive.' '' He stayed with the company until it split in two, at which time he became one of The Dodgers, a troupe that found a home for a while at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. There he directed ''Gimme Shelter'' in 1978. It was the first McAnuff production to be seen by Joseph Papp, who was impressed.

''Everything was meticulously worked out,'' says Mr. Papp. ''The mind behind the work was so clearly in evidence. After the show I went back to see him and said, if you ever leave this place, please let me know. And he did.''

Lately Mr. McAnuff has been happily at work synchronizing all the elements of ''Von Richthofen,'' a prodigiously complex production whose technical aspects drove the company to near-distraction. In addition to the usual complement of technical and production staff, putting on ''Von Richthofen'' involved the use of such additional machinery as flying rigs, not to mention a stuffed dog. It is no small matter to make bombs fall, bodies soar through the air and planes glide across a stage on cue, let alone to replace the lead actor the week before previews are due to start. Chainsmoking but genially low-key, Mr. McAnuff seems unperturbed, managing to convey an air of calm reasonableness despite the crises of the moment.

Barry Bostwick, the original lead, has departed because of what Mr. McAnuff describes only as ''artistic differences. We just saw the role differently,'' the director says.

John Vickery, who received rave reviews last summer as Prince Hal in ''Henry IV,'' has stepped into the role of Von Richthofen, and like other members of the cast he lapses immediately into superlatives when discussing Mr. McAnuff. ''He's my favorite director,'' says Mr. Vickery. ''He's incredibly clear about giving the psychology of a character and telling you what you must do - but not how to do it. He's very demanding, but he leaves the actor's craft to the actor. Unfortunately a lot of directors show you what you have to do, but Des doesn't invade your territory.''

Bob Gunton, who plays Hermann Goering, is equally effusive. ''This is the most fun I've had with my clothes on in years,'' comments Mr. Gunton, who has won acclaim for the 21 characters he played in ''How I Got That Story'' as well as for his portrayal of Juan Peron in ''Evita.'' ''It usually means trouble if you're being directed by the writer, because the objective eye that can stand back and see what images are getting out is not there. But Des has a great sense of objectivity about this piece. He's also been very generous about making it a collaboration. Instead of saying, 'This is the way this character has to be,' he shares his vision and allows you to grow into that space. He doesn't just manipulate you into doing your piece of the mosaic. He's a very humanistic director.''

Despite the elaborate production ''Von Richthofen'' is currently receiving, Mr. McAnuff does not expect this to be its final incarnation. ''I probably will continue to tinker with the play on one level or another,'' he remarks. ''It probably won't really be finished until I drop dead.''

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