Tim Robbins spied "Mephisto," the Nazi-era play based on Klaus Mann’s 1936 novel about an actor who pandered to the Nazis to advance his career, while rifling through a box of books on his way out of an English-language bookstore in Paris last March. The actor-writer-activist, then on location with Jonathan Demme’s film, "The Truth About Charlie," was searching for plays to direct at the Actors’ Gang, the boldly original Los Angeles troupe he’d co-founded with UCLA peers in 1981.
The play, which opens at the Actors’ Gang Oct. 27, had an intriguing backstory. Mann based his protagonist on his ex-brother-in-law, a Communist-turned-fascist, who, oblivious to escalating anti-Semitism, had been named director of Hitler’s Berlin State Theater. An ensuing lawsuit banned the novel in Germany until 1980, when it became a best-seller and the subject of a 1981 Istvan Szabo film, "Mephisto."
The play version was adapted by Ariane Mnouchkine, founder of Paris’ Theater du Soleil, whose highly theatrical style had profoundly influenced the Gang. "So I immediately picked up the book," says Robbins, 43, who quickly realized the morality tale was perfect Gang fare.
His company is known for cutting-edge, socially relevant theater, not unlike the revolutionary troupe depicted in "Mephisto." The fictional company’s work was actually performed in Nazi Germany: "In her adaptation, Mnouchkine utilizes cabaret sketches written by Karl Valentine, a clown and satirist who’d do these very daring pieces that were critical of the Nazis — taking real risks not only with his art, but with his life," Robbins told The Journal. "That kind of vaudeville-style, political cabaret is something the Gang has done well in the past, so it plays very well to our strengths. But ‘Mephisto’ also takes us to where we should be growing, because to successfully perform the piece, we must completely immerse ourselves in the world of the play."
To do so, Robbins and his actors avidly read up on the Third Reich and the 24 martyred artists, all victims of the Nazis, to whom Mnouchkine dedicated her play.
Robbins ("The Player," "The Shawshank Redemption") has renegade theater in his blood. He grew up in a liberal Catholic home in Greenwich Village, where his father, Gil, a folksinger, ran a basement club. By age 12, he was performing with an avant-garde street theater; a decade later, he and the Gang were bringing raw, punk rock aesthetics to Los Angeles.
The troupe provided Robbins with a creative outlet as he began landing TV roles — an endeavor he initially despised, though it enabled him to funnel money back into the Gang.
Since then, his work of choice has often been searing social critique. He is the writer-director of the films "Bob Roberts" (1992), a satire about a seductive right-wing politician; "Dead Man Walking" (1995), an anti-death penalty saga starring his significant other, actress Susan Sarandon; and "Cradle Will Rock" (2000), about a leftist musical defiantly staged during the Depression.
But don’t call Robbins a "political" artist.
"In my mind, ‘political’ means ‘careful’ and ‘calculated,’ so there’s an implied insincerity," says the actor, who was recently reinstated as the Gang’s founding artistic director after members braved a period of artistic differences.
Reflecting on his career, Robbins says he can understand — at least in part — the Faustian struggle of his "Mephisto" protagonist. "Hollywood can be a very seductive and destructive place for an actor," he says. "There are the parties, and being loved because you’re famous. But, Hollywood can also be an incredibly liberating place. [For example], there would be no Actors’ Gang if it wasn’t for the TV money, at the start. And our theater wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for ‘Bull Durham’ and ‘The Shawshank Redemption.’"
"Mephisto" resonated in an even more personal way for the New York-based actor after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. When his assistant called with the news, Robbins, who was then visiting Los Angeles, jumped in a car and drove all the way home to lower Manhattan. Over the next few days, he toted food to the rescue workers and considered canceling "Mephisto" and Chekhov’s "The Seagull," the other play opening the Gang’s 20th anniversary season. But then he reflected that both works were eerily pertinent to current events. "They deal with the artist’s responsibility during a time of national crisis," he says.
"Mephisto," he adds, "talks about the world turned upside down, a complete loss of reason and things spiraling out of control. Since Sept. 11, the actors and I have been feeling these concepts in a much more visceral way."
For tickets, call (323) 465-0566.