The Associated Press
July 29, 1982

'The Death of Von Richthofen' Opens Off-Broadway

By JAY SHARBUTT, AP Drama Critic

Did Manfred Von Richthofen, Germany's "ace of aces" in World War I, deliberately get himself shot down and killed in 1918, fearing a future as a unwilling, forced-to-be-ruthless "new age" Fuhrer in postwar Germany?

Did his death allow the rise to power of another German flying ace, the cocaine-snorting, bisexual, sadistic Hermann Goering, and a war-maddened, venomous infantry corporal named Adolf Hitler?

Such are the possibilities raised in Des McAnuff's explosive, darkly surreal, spectacularly staged play with music, "The Death of Von Richthofen As Witnessed From Earth," which opened Thursday.

Erupting at the Public Theater, it features magnificent performances by John Vickery as an iron-nerved Red Baron in the process of mentally disintegrating and Bob Gunton as an effete, morally corrupt young Goering, with Mark Petrakis powerfully moving as a haggard, mud-covered German corporal about whom much will be heard one war later.

Now the sad news. "Death" has no real focus. It spends nearly three hours moving back and forth between Allied and German lines, offering various digressions, often brilliant scenes, and highly imaginative direction by McAnuff, author of the show's book and music.

But other than showing the insanity of war and how sheer chance can play a large part in history, it only makes you wonder if the show's point somehow got buried in this barrage of sight and sound.

No question that "Death" is visually stunning, opening with shellfire, Petrakis' grimy corporal watching an off-stage plane crash, then a doomed British pilot, dangling on wires, singing of falling to earth without benefit of parachute.

Macabre runs rampant here. A chortling, killed-in-action, piano-pounding Australian GI periodically rises above the war. A black-clad chorus of dead young German pilots with ghostly, grease-stained faces materializes both on foot and "flying" in formation behind a dimly lighted gauze screen. The dead British pilot refuses to stay buried.

A young trio of shabbily dressed gypsy women prowls the battlefield, scavengers of war. Two dimwit Australian soldiers try to figure out how to operate a machine gun, then later don gas marks and sing, eerily waltzing through deadly gas mists with two elegant prostitutes.

Arresting sights, heightened by Patricia McGourty's superb costumes and Douglas Schmidt's realistic battlefield set, a torn landscape littered with white crosses (it shares the stage with the richly detailed chateau that's Von Richthofen's frontline home).

But despite all this and a full-size Tinkertoy kind of triplane flown by the Red Baron, the show just doesn't rise to great heights.

It mostly floats in a murky nightmare of despair and mixed motives, with the Red Baron trapped in a personal Garden of Gethsemane after the German high command, needing a live hero to buck up a demoralized home front, asks him to quit combat after his 80th kill.

Things are a lot clearer on the Australian side. There, our two infantryman (well-played by Robert Joy and Mark Linn-Baker) just want to be heroes at no risk, get out of the war and use their war records to get started as music-hall stars.

They're inept warriors, Von Richthofen the deadly professional. You can safely bet that chance -- or perhaps a death wish -- triumphs when the war brings them together at show's end.

McAnuff's war, performed with forgettable, usually ironic songs done in styles that range from march to waltz to music hall to soft rock, is a daring, ambitious effort. You can't fault him for trying.

Too bad the effort just doesn't come together. With a solid score, tighter editing and a firmer sense of focus, it could have been a triumph, not an interesting, well-acted disappointment.

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