Theater Review: Compulsion Or The House Behind

This is a guest post by Natalie Goldman.
We all know about “The Diary of Anne Frank”. What we may not all know about, is the struggle behind how to best (and legally) impart Anne’s messages to the masses in various creative forms.
The current production of Compulsion, or the House Behind, from the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, provides a “behind the scenes” twist, about the life of a man who became consumed by Anne’s story and how to tell it.
The play is based on the life of Meyer Levin, who, beginning in the 1950s, spent years trying to have his stage adaptation of the Diary produced and published.  It seems the producers and publishers of the world had other ideas, and Levin (as the character Sid Silver in the play) ended up in a life long battle over legal rights, royalties, principles, and just plain egos.
Levin himself had been a successful and well known author prior to and during WWII, but seems to have become obsessed with the Anne Frank project, to the point where it became difficult for him to separate right from wrong – for us and for him. I wasn’t sure if I should be rooting for or against him at different points throughout the night, which kept me on my toes as a viewer.
If there was a common thread to his obsession, it was his thought that the play should remain true to Anne’s words, in order to remain a message to Jews everywhere.   In his mind, the ‘communists and redbaiters’ who ended up producing the play on Broadway instead chose to change Anne’s words, in order to appeal to a broader American audience, by essentially removing the Jewishness from her story.
The play itself is written by Rinne Groff, and ably directed by Hayley Finn, of the local Playwrights’ Center, who has directed several previous productions at the MN Jewish Theatre.
All in all, the play was very well done, and worth seeing.  There are some odds and ends I still don’t get.  But the overall impact of the evening makes up for them all.
One thing I still don’t “get” is the title.  The word “compulsion” actually seems to relate to a different play that Meyer had been famous for – and reference to “the House Behind” still stymies me.
And I am quite sure I do not get the legalese – the interplay of publishing rights, the author’s rights (or in this case the author’s father, Otto Frank), and the handshake understandings, written contracts, and eventually lawsuits that seemed to form the backdrop throughout.
So too the inevitable way in which 50s world events play into it all (Walter Winchell, “redbaiting” and the like) – a decade that either generated, or seems to find its way into so many plays yet can tend to go over the heads of those who weren’t there (see a prior TCJewFolk review of Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor).
And I am definitely sure that I don’t get Sid Silver.  He is a hard character to like, but I did feel a bit sorry for him because he believed so firmly in what he was doing that the play and negotiations took on a life of their own.  I’m still not sure what we are to think.   According to the program notes, his play remains banned, yet underground productions continue to pop up.  Somebody must still like him, or the story he tried to tell.
Still, the cast was exceptional, with 3 actors playing a total of 7 different characters, plus the puppeteer Janaki Ranpura whose physical dexterity alone should win a prize.
Levin was played skillfully by Mark Benninghofen, who has appeared often at the Guthrie and other locales, but seemingly his first for the Jewish Theatre.
Bethany Ford was last seen in the Jewish Theatre production of Photograph 51, and seems to have earned her spot as a regular.
And Matt Rein juggled four different roles, and also played a lead (as the “my”) in the Jewish Theatre’s recent production of My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding.
The set was sparse but effective and creative, with things like two desks suddenly being turned over, shoved together, and turned into a convincing bedroom scene.
But the marionettes stole the show, especially considering the relatively few scenes they actually appeared in.  It is hard to take your eyes off them.
Created by puppet designer Chris Lutter-Gardella and ‘acted’ by puppeteer Jananki Ranpura, the point becomes clear – Anne Frank herself was little more than a puppet or pawn in the story. The whole production both revolves around her and has nothing to do with her at all.
There is something definitely haunting about marionettes, and Anne’s in particular – just as Silver himself seems to have been haunted by her his whole life.
Compulsion, or the House Behind runs weekends through March 24th (when, by the way, you can catch the post production discussion among an author, publisher and legal experts, on the subject of “who owns Anne Frank”).
Definitely a 4 on my Yelp list.  Check it out.
Natalie Goldman is a 24-year-old living the dream in the heart of Uptown. She hails from Mendota Heights but had a fantastic four year stint at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Since leaving Wisconsin with a Marketing Major, she has been working in Merchandising at Target Headquarters. She enjoys exploring Uptown, running around the Minnesota lakes, and traveling as much as possible!