For those who keep up with fascist dictator real estate, “In Braunau” is timely. It arrives fresh off the heels of a lawsuit involving the Austrian government, which seized Adolf Hitler’s birthplace from its owner out of concern that the site would become a popular neo-Nazi pilgrimage stop.
It’s unclear what the government intends to do with the property. Some leaders want it demolished, while others see it as an opportunity to support various charities.
But “In Braunau” offers up a much more peculiar proposal for the space: a “bed-and-breakfast”-style tourist destination. The strange scenario plays out exactly how you’d expect — in other words, shit hits the fan really, really quickly. Yet underneath the unusual premise is a warning about the social facilitation of the rise of fascism, Nazism and white supremacy, one timely regardless of real estate literacy.
“In Braunau,” written by Dipika Guha, is part of the San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series, which offers playwrights the chance to put on productions of their new plays on reduced budgets. Guha’s work may be staged with a simple set and few lighting elements, but the story is anything but simple — in fact, it’s overflowing with content that is at once both fascinating and disturbing.
It would be a disservice to the production to divulge too many details of the plot, but the temptation to divulge and explain this story to your friends gathered around is almost irresistible, like sharing the story of a bizarre, convoluted drunken romp from weekends past.
The show advertises its premise vaguely, perhaps deliberately so. Two ultra-liberal progressives of Jewish and Japanese heritage, respectively — Justin (Josh Schell) and Sarah (Sango Tajima) — move in to Adolf Hitler’s childhood home with the intent of turning it into a “bed-and-dinner” for visitors to Braunau, Austria. Their ultimate goal, they explain, is to reclaim the space, and to rewrite history by building a safe space right at the “birthplace of evil.”
That, at least, is how the play begins. A ghostly choir of child Nazis, an antifa, or anti-fascist, cameo and dreamlike visions of Hitler unfold thereafter. Admittedly, Guha is trying to accomplish far too much for an 90-minute runtime. A little more breathing room may have benefited the complex narrative, though its fast pace certainly served the show’s suspenseful tone. By moving through material rapidly, the audience can’t process everything that’s just happened and thus can’t predict what’s going to happen next.
“In Braunau” feels almost akin to watching a horror film — except that, rather than tension-building climaxes culminating in dramatic jump scares, the monster never makes itself visible. In this play, director Susannah Martin isn’t building toward a monster reveal, only toward the slow and subtle realizations that this monster is much bigger and more dangerous than initially thought.
The momentum of this show’s delirium is carried well on the shoulders of its actors. This is particularly true of Tajima, whose intense transition from eager and razor-sharp host to unraveled survivor is the show’s backbone. Unsettling performances from Schell, as well as Elissa Beth Stebbins, Mohammad Shehata and Timothy Roy Redmond electrify the show’s dark comedic edges.
Their performances will leave audiences contemplating this show’s message quite some time after its curtain call. Just when its audience comes to grips with one aspect of its thematic material, the clarity opens a door to a million new questions about the show’s intent. The characters of “In Braunau” are forced to reckon with not only whether or not evil truly exists, but what that evil may look like — whether it be violent and melodramatic, or seemingly well-intentioned and unassuming — that is, until it’s too late.
Within this inquiry, Guha weaves in a haunting message, inspired by the “Never again fascism” sign erected outside Hitler’s home. The play serves as a powerful warning in an era during which neo-Nazi movements are growing and accumulating followers within demographics that historically renounced fascism, including America.
It’s impossible to promise that history will never repeat itself, Guha argues. Nazi ideology is returning — and we have a responsibility to be aware of these warning signs and of how our own actions may facilitate it.
“In Braunau” will run through July 7 at The Rueff at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater.
Shannon O’Hara covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].