New York Times
July 30, 1982

Musical: McAnuff's 'Richthofen' Arrives at Public


Des McAnuff is a 30-year-old director, playwright and composerlyricist who has more talents than he knows what to do with - and he certainly hasn't figured out what to do with them in his new show at the Public's Newman Theater, ''The Death of von Richthofen as Witnessed From Earth.'' Mr. McAnuff seems to have poured every idea he has into this extravagant musical - ideas about stage esthetics, history, music and sex - but he hasn't found the one governing master stroke that might shape ''von Richthofen'' into a vibrant, not to mention coherent, piece of theater. The evening is at once overstuffed and undernourished: even as you admire its creator's fanciful riffs, you find yourself sinking rapidly into tedium.

Heaven knows that Mr. McAnuff's intentions are valiant. ''von Richthofen'' is set in France at the end of World War I - during the 24-hour period leading to the death of the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen (John Vickery), the ace of German flying aces who achieved 80 ''kills'' before tempting the fates once too often. But Mr. McAnuff hasn't so much written a historical drama about his hero as a speculative rumination about the making of our century. As he whips us between the grim trenches and flame-filled skies of 1918, he hopes to unearth the roots of two evils that grew from the ashes of the war: the rise of Adolf Hitler and the proliferation of holocaustal technological warfare.

Sound complex? It is - Mr. McAnuff might as well be attempting to adapt Thomas Pynchon's ''Gravity's Rainbow.'' And perhaps it's no surprise that ''von Richthofen'' is at its best when it keeps its big themes at bay. The sequences that deal with World War I itself are most inventively managed. Three inspired designers - Douglas W. Schmidt (scenery), Patricia McGourty (costumes), Richard Nelson (lighting) -have spent what looks like a fortune to transform the Newman's stage into a literal European theater. We see von Richthofen's vintage plane glide across the sky; we watch his 80th victim float 7,000 feet into his grave; we can almost taste the mud of the blood-and rain-soaked no man's land. Though there are times when too many images are cramped into the space available, the visual spectacle often simulates the exhilaration of levitation and the terrifying time-suspension of a plunge toward death.

Mr. McAnuff's eclectic score, brightly orchestrated by Michael Starobin and conducted by Michael S. Roth, has its dry spells but also its striking fantasies. Some of the music is tuneful and most of the lyrics are imaginatively based in whimsy or metaphor. Three apparitional women sit in a tree to sing a melancholy chorale about civilian suffering (''If I had a name/ I've forgotten it now''). A tinkling piano rises from the earth to accompany the evening's many - too many - British music-hall turns. (In the best of them, Robert Westenberg and Marek Norman imagine that heaven is like England, complete with neatly trimmed hedges.) Mr. Vickery gets to deliver a haunting, Weill-flavored ballad about the magic of Sarah Bernhardt.

But the heavy-duty work of ''von Richthofen'' is reserved for the long, turgid book scenes, which are curiously bereft of Mr. McAnuff's usual wit. It's in the dialogue that we learn that Germany is looking for ''a new Siegfried'' to lead it into ''a new age,'' and that World War I's romantic, almost innocent new flying machines may someday evolve into murderous mechanisms of unfathomable cruelty. The plot that links these issues is far from thrilling: will von Richthofen quit his flying circus while he's ahead, so he can survive the war to be Germany's savior? Two malignant men - Hermann Goring (Bob Gunton) and a mad corporal who just might be Hitler (Mark Petrakis) - endlessly try to convince him to do so. Needless to say, they fail and, as history tells us, inherit Germany themselves instead.

The speeches are unrelievedly stilted, in the manner of B war movies, and the narrative is static. Though Mr. McAnuff throws in the odd spicy flourish - Goring madly snorts cocaine while envisioning Germany's eventual conquest of Europe - each scene seems a talky rehash of the last. The author's direction of the book accents its repetitiveness: he keeps trooping us jerkily from the battlefield to German headquarters and back again. The musical numbers, somewhat abetted by Jennifer Muller's stylized choreography, occur in clumps that are arbitrarily dispersed. Mr. McAnuff's asides about malebonding, celebrity and science, as well as his subsidiary iconography (mules, floating teapots, a ''Marat/ Sade'' bathtub), also seem thrown in.

In the end, the show's imagistic motifs are so scattershot and unintegrated that the author must settle for making his larger points with bald announcements or by simplistically milking his symbolic future Fuhrer. The most effective merging of history and theater, unfortunately, is a portentous Act I finale whose staging and spirit are derivative of ''Tomorrow Belongs to Me'' in ''Cabaret.'' While ''von Richthofen'' would benefit from substantial pruning, cuts alone cannot give the show the infrastructure and forward drive that are essential to knit the material into the tragic hallucinatory reverie that Mr. McAnuff intends.

Though the players are capable, they're often left suspended in midair by the vagueness of their characterizations. Von Richthofen is, I think, meant to be a charismatic superstar who stands for the last, dying romantic illusions of Old Europe; Mr. Vickery brings the role fire and intelligence, along with an excess of sobriety and an unattractive singing voice. I have no idea what Mr. McAnuff is trying to say about Goring, but Mr. Gunton, as always, is delightful: he may even be doing a nutty parody of his last stage fascist, Juan D. Peron in ''Evita.'' The outstanding song and dance work comes from Robert Joy and Mark Linn-Baker, who perform what sounds like a small revival of ''Oh, What a Lovely War'' while playing the two burlesque Australian soldiers who ultimately shoot the hero down.

Yet everyone works hard, and no one more so than Mr. McAnuff, an artist who will surely erect a world of his own on stage once he's learned the virtues of discipline and simplicity. What he's built in ''von Richthofen'' is a Rube Goldberg contraption that putters and shakes and fitfully fascinates, but is far too cumbersome to fly.

Ace's Last Hours
THE DEATH OF VON RICHTHOFEN AS WITNESSED FROM EARTH, written, composed and directed by Des McAnuff; choreography by Jennifer Muller; scenery by Douglas W. Schmidt; costumes by Patricia McGourty; lighting by Richard Nelson; sound by Bill Dreisbach; sound effects by James LeBrecht; orchestrations by Michael Starobin; musical direction by Michael Roth; vocal arrangements by Messrs. Starobin, Roth and McAnuff; production stage manager, Fredrick H. Orner; musicians: Joe Barone, Phil Marsh, Glenn Rhian, Paul Litteral, James McElwaine, James Tunnell and Don Mikkelsen.

Presented by Joseph Papp. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street.

R. Raymond Barker Robert Westenberg
N.C.O. SecullMarek Norman
Robert Buie Robert Joy
William Evans Mark Linn-Baker
Wolfram von Richthofen  Brent Barrett
Manfred von Richthofen   John Vickery
Karl BodenschatzJeffrey Jones
Three Women: A violinist    Sigrid Wurschmidt
Lutanist Susan Berman
FlutistPeggy Harmon
German Lance Corporal Mark Petrakis
Hermann GoringBob Gunton
Flying Circus Michael Brian, Eric Elice, Davis Gaines,
Karl Heist, Tad Ingram, Ken Land, Martha Wingate.

von richthofen index