Review: Dinner with Goebbels (act2studio WORKS)

Three of history’s most notorious names in propaganda gather in Dinner with Goebbels at Toronto’s Red Sandcastle Theatre

Going into act2studio WORKS‘ production of Dinner With Goebbels I can’t deny I was nervous. Watching a play about Karl Rove, Joseph Goebbels and Edward Bernays having dinner together is a challenging and intriguing idea, but also one that requires some very careful navigation on behalf of the playwright to make sure it doesn’t dissolve into an uncomfortable caricature.

The good news is that for the most part the script is well written and fascinating, giving an hour long lesson on the art of propaganda and three of its most infamous practitioners that, on its own, shows that playwright Mark Leith knows his subject matter.

The story is relatively simple. Karl Rove, at the height of the Plame affair, invites the ghost of Edward Bernays to dinner in hopes of getting some guidance on dealing with the situation. Much to Rove’s consternation however, Joseph Goebbels also comes, apparently invited by Bernays for some reason. What follows is the propaganda equivalent of fishing stories as each of them talks about some of their greatest moments; Rove with transforming George W. Bush from a Houston Baseball junkie into a country cowboy, Goebbels with the Reichstag fire and Bernays with his “Torches for Freedom” campaign.

Unfortunately, while as simple and interesting as this story is, it’s clear that Leith is far more interested in telling the audience about the things these three men have done for money, power and influence and so the Plame scandal narrative is barely mentioned until about halfway through the play. It only really picks up steam at the very end, although even then it’s simply used as a catalyst to discuss more things about the characters.

A play isn’t simply words on a script however, the performance is just as important as the words being said, and this area, unfortunately, fails to match the fascinating subject matter of the script. Sandra Forte, Cathy Shilton and Mary Wildridge play Rove, Bernays and Goebbels respectively, although the choice to cast women in male roles seemed more arbitrary to me than any kind of exploratory choice; all three performers play the characters as men, sometimes to the edge of caricature that, for me personally, never really brought anything to the narrative.

As for the performances as a whole, it is important to recognize that act2studio WORKS is a program for student actors who just happen to be 50 and over. The biggest problem the performers had was very clear difficulty in listening to each others’ lines, placing far more emphasis on delivering their own and not responding to each other and creating realistic interactions. When the characters are just pontificating on their own brilliance it’s less of an issue, but especially at the climax of the play which depends entirely on the characters hearing and responding to each other it falls flat, losing a great deal of the emotional impact. A lot of this is forgivable when one remembers this is technically a student production, but for a $22 price tag I expected a great deal more polish than what I received.

Despite my issues with this production, I have to say I’m very impressed with the bravery of act2studio WORKS in doing this production at all. True, this is its third run, with its two previous incarnations selling out, but the subject matter of Dinner with Goebbels is daunting to anyone, let alone student actors. I tip my hat to everyone involved for stepping up and tackling the material, and suggest to anyone interested in the ramifications and personalities of propaganda’s history, make an effort to see this.

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Photo of Mary Wildridge, Cathy Shilton and Sandra Forte by David Hawe