While Alex Roe’s minimalist production is both sharp and engrossing, the play offers viewers several problems. Aside from the three main characters, the play has 23 other speaking roles with actors doubling and tripling in multiple roles. Those unfamiliar with the Hungarian names as well as the history may have trouble following the twisty drama as the events pile up. Ardrey uses the awkward device of a narrator actually called the “Author” (played by Joel Rainwater) which helps a greatly but this also leads to a good deal of excess information. At almost three hours, Shadow of Heroes is an investment in time but it does pay off in the end. There are very few plays since Shakespeare which attempt as this one does to dramatize such a large chunk of history on stage.
The opening scene introduces us to the three main protagonists: László Rajk, intellectual and idealist head of the Hungarian Communist underground who have been fighting the Nazis, his loyally committed wife Julia, and his best friend and deputy Kádár, a man from the working class. When László and Julia are both arrested by the fleeing Nazis, it is János who goes to meet with their Soviet Hungarian handlers, Ernö Gerö and Hungarian Communist Party secretary Matyas Rákosi. After the war, national hero Rajk has the prestigious job of Minister of the Interior but his integrity and frugal ways come into conflict with the other party leaders’ enjoyment of their luxuries.
Switched to the less powerful role of Minister of Foreign Affairs while János becomes Minister of the Interior, he swiftly loses favor when he refuses to move to a villa more suitable for a minister of state and give up his three room apartment. Thus begins his quick fall and János’ just as quick rise to power. The story continues as one of struggles of these men and others to climb the political ladder as well as survive in the Soviet post-W.W. II era which eventually concludes with the abortive Hungarian uprising.
As László Rajk, tall handsome Trevor St. John-Gilbert is graceful and stalwart as this heroic figure. As his wife Julia, Erin Beirnard becomes more impassioned as time passes and the dishonest politicians scale the heights. She ultimately becomes the play’s heroine. Michael Turner makes the devious, opportunistic János Kádár a figure of menace and evil as he crawls his way to the top of the heap. David Logan Rankin’s suave and elegant party official Ernö Gerö is a most sinister character while Zenon Zeleniuch as his boss Matyas Rákosi, a man of few words, is even more threatening and malevolent. Among the large cast, Joseph J. Menino stands out as General Gábor Péter, a cruel man who is only out to save his own skin.
Roe’s seasoned and adroit production is aided by a production team in tune with his minimalist vision. Vincent Gunn’s clever and fluid set design is made up of wooden packing crates which are rearranged on and off of platforms to make up the many Hungarian locations referred to in the play. This is backed by painted wall panels that depict a view of Budapest. The costumes by Sidney Fortner beautifully capture the Soviet era austerity as well as the luxury of those in party favor. While Jessie Lynn Smith’s lighting design is always serviceable, it often fails to register the right atmosphere needed. Bill Toles’ sound design continually captures offstage noises that add to the ambiance.
Though not remembered much today, playwright Robert Ardrey was the author of the acclaimed but short runs of Thunder Rock and Jeb, which were most likely ahead of their time. His admired historical screenplays include The Three Musketeers, Madame Bovary, Quentin Durward and his Oscar nominated Khartoum. Metropolitan Playhouse demonstrates that his Shadow of Heroes is a durable play that is both relevant and timely yet again as we go through a period of political and right wing turmoil. While it might be easier to follow with a larger cast filling the 30 roles, Alex Roe’s production is both trenchant and illuminating as it recounts recent history that many of us may never have known. If we don’t learn from the past, we will be condemned to repeat it.
Shadow of Heroes (through December 9, 2018)
Metropolitan Playhouse, 220 East 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-838-3006 or visit http://www.metropolitanplayhouse.org
Running time: two hours and 55 minutes with one intermission