Australia's Back to Back Theatre has several missions to accomplish in Ganesh Versus The Third Reich, their current offering in the Public Theater's Under The Radar Festival. First, through awe-inspiring projections, transcendent sound, and am impressive mask (credited to Sam Jinks and Paul Smits) they thrust elephant-headed Hindu deity Ganesh into the role of the hero who must go to Nazi Germany and reclaim his tradition's swastika symbol from Adolf Hitler.
It has a lovely, comic-book feel to it, and being a riff on a traditional black-and-white conflict, takes up 20 minutes or so of the play's running time. Much more of the play involves the five performers from Back to Back Theatre, on a mostly bare stage, talking about the business of performing. At first, we only see Ganesh. He is played by Brian Tilley wearing Indian shorts, no shirt, and an elephant mask. While an elephant-headed god is striking, he comes off looking like an average, non-idealized guy. He and his companions talk of their motivation for attacking Hitler, and then we see that the performers have various disabilities ranging from a lisp to Down Syndrome. They talk slowly and distinctly, often with humorous irony. They rarely agree with each other, either when they are rehearsing or when they are performing.
As legend has it, Ganesh was born to Shiva and Parvati in normal human form. His head was cut off in battle, and the head of the next being his parents encountered was put on his body. That is why he is the elephant-headed god of wisdom and of overcoming obstacles. The entire ensemble of Back to Back Theatre is in effect overcoming their impediments together. Together, they can definitely do it. The same goes for defeating Hitler.
Any time Ganesh is shackled by Fascists (who, tellingly, speak in German with supertitles), he simply breaks free. To illustrate the opposite, the play ends with the actors playing hide and seek, with one performer alone under a table as the lights fade. Perhaps we can all be heroes, if only we can talk to each other.
Director Bruce Gladwin has made an entertaining evening out of a deceptively simple story. He has been doing this for 25 years, including 4 shows which have traveled to the Public Theater. Hugh Covill and Marco Cher-Gibard's sound is essential for presenting the story clearly and for filling us with foreboding whenever Nazis are nigh. The same goes for Andrew Livingstone's simply powerful lighting.