In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 film “North by Northwest,” Cary Grant is mistaken for the spy George Kaplan by villain James Mason and his thugs (possibly Russian.) As we eventually discover, there is no real George Kaplan – his existence was invented and carefully nurtured by Leo G. Carroll, the head of an (unnamed) U.S. intelligence agency, to throw the villain off the track of the actual American spy, Eva Marie Saint.
That improbable if now beloved scenario apparently inspired French playwright Frédéric Sonntag a decade ago to write a play entitled “George Kaplan,” an English translation of which is being presented by the Bridge Production Group at New Ohio Theater through December 3.
“George Kaplan” presents three scenes, with the same five actors portraying three separate sets of characters: a group of radical activists who call themselves the George Kaplan Group; a writer’s room brainstorming ideas for a TV series about a character named George Kaplan; and a group of Deep State media, industry, and political figures who are trying to assess the threat to national security after “various observers of activist movements have alerted us of a name that’s been quite regularly coming to their ears: a certain George Kaplan.”
Chickens also figure one way or another in all three scenes. Chickens in a play are usually a sign of comic intent. There’s certainly humor in “George Kaplan,” but it’s often dark. Two of the scenes are explicitly violent; the third is implicitly so.
At the beginning of the first scene, which is the longest, the group is standing in front of a flag, wearing masks and videotaping what seems to be a manifesto, except the masks are ludicrous, the flag replaces the stars with chickens, and what they are saying is gobbledygook. One might be tempted to blame the language on translator Samuel Buggeln: e.g. “We, George Kaplan Group, are souls awake, and our era abominates us.” (???) But eventually some of the members complain specifically about that phrase, arguing they don’t understand it and it doesn’t work. As it turns out, the members complain and argue and debate just about everything — what they should call themselves (George Kaplan Group? George Kaplan Project?) and what their purpose is, but also whether they should be drinking coffee or beer at this meeting, and whether it is a formal meeting or an informal gathering, and whether they should vote on which it is. All of this can be taken as a satire of the painstaking/painful group dynamics and endless self-questioning of radical activists, although it’s not clear (to them or to us) if that’s what they are. There are clues that they are akin to the Guerrilla Girls, artists dedicated to pranks to make a point. One of their aims is to get activists and artists in multiple countries all to call themselves George Kaplan and sign that name to their “artworks and actions.” But the ending of the scene suggests these George Kaplans are something more threatening – or at least the powers that be find them more threatening.
The other two scenes are a similar mix of humorous and ominous. One of the writers is a caricature of a self-important Hollywood screenwriter, who calls Aristotle a dumbass and is given to quoting from her own self-help books on writing (Ten Commandments of the Screenplay. How to Write Your Blockbuster. Creating Unforgettable Characters. Twenty-four Steps to Build Your Story – it’s not clear whether those are the titles of two books or four.) The writers have been commissioned by “clients,” who have installed microphones in the ceiling, so that they get a recording of everything said in the room, and get ownership of it. This made me wonder: Are we supposed to question whether the clients are entertainment moguls? Are they instead autocrats relying on the writers to feed them ideas for some cointelpro operation? Maybe that thought came out of nowhere – or maybe I was influenced by the characters’ paranoia.
If I were to guess the point of “George Kaplan,” I would say that it’s an attempted critique of the cynical use of invented narratives in modern politics and culture — how people who hold or hanker after power, rather than trying to assess the world as it is, prefer to create their own fictional version of the world, and try to impose the fiction on everybody else as a way of gaining or keeping control.
That can explain why there is so much squabbling and angling in the play — competition of narratives as power play.
Under the direction of Max Hunter, the cast tries to make these exchanges lively, and the design team keeps busy, but I’m afraid I reached my fill of the surreal, obscure proceedings quite some time before the third and final nightmarish ending.
New Ohio Theater through December 3, 2022
Running time: 75 minutes with no intermission
Written by Frédéric Sonntag
Directed by Max Hunter
Translated by Samuel Buggeln
Costume design by Avery Reed, lighting design by Conor Mulligan, scenic and prop design by Thomas Jenkeleit, multimedia design by Andrew Freeburg.
Cast: Christina Toth, Max Samuels, Elisha Lawson, Campbell Symes,Michael DeFilippis