Andy Waldschmidt in The White Plague(Photo © Ryan Jensen)
Andy Waldschmidt in The White Plague
(Photo © Ryan Jensen)
The White Plague, Karel Capek's 1937 satire of war-mongering nations, remains as relevant today as when the Czech playwright originally wrote it as a reaction to Spain's civil war. The Subjective Theatre Company presents this rarely seen work as part of The UnConvention: An American Theater Festival, a response to the Republican National Convention in New York City. Unfortunately, director Zachary R. Mannheimer's production, which uses a 1999 translation by Peter Majer and Cathy Porter, is wildly uneven.

In the play, a leprosy-inducing plague afflicts an unnamed country even as the nation prepares for war. Dr. Galen (Andy Waldschmidt) has found a cure, but refuses to make it widely available unless government and industry leaders agree to shut down their war machine; Galen treats the poor but refuses to cure the rich. The situation escalates as more and more draconian measures are taken to try to prevent the spread of the disease, and more and more prominent citizens are infected by the plague.

Mannheimer emphasizes a farcical tone that is too heavy-handed to be theatrically compelling. The majority of the actors deliver their lines with bombastic vocal intonations that actually make the play seem less complex; it's obvious who the villains are, and their over-the-top mannerisms make it impossible to take their actions and arguments seriously. Corey Peterson as Sigelius, a court counselor who runs a prominent medical facility, provides perhaps the clearest example of this, but Jonathan Co Green as The Marshall and Darius Stone as Baron Krug are also prone to overacting.

Waldschmidt is one of the few cast members who gives a grounded performance; his understated body language and haunted expression endow Dr. Galen with a depth not found anywhere else in the production. Although this seems to have been the director's intent, the show would be vastly improved if the rest of the cast reigned themselves in to allow for an actual exchange of ideas between the characters instead of simplistic messages.

This nearly happens in a scene between Krug and Galen: The baron has been infected by the plague and disguises himself as a poor man to try to get the doctor to take him on as a patient. Galen quickly sees through his disguise and tells Krug that he'll treat him only after the baron stops manufacturing weapons of war in his factories. As Krug attempts to reason with Galen, some of the artificiality of the actor playing the role drops away.

It's in moments such as this that the play seems especially vibrant and politically charged. Krug's point of view is not without merit, and the audience is forced to question the rigidity of Galen's stance. By not sharing the cure, Galen allows hundreds to die. He also defies the state and is ready to go to prison for his beliefs. Capek has not rendered the issues within the play in black and white; The White Plague wrestles with moral and ethical choices for all of its main characters, and it's a pity that the production works against such ambiguities.

On the design front, Joshua P. Hinden's lighting is moody and effective. Kay Lee's costumes capture the timeless feel of the production, which does not seek to imitate a particular historical era and location but, instead, creates an alternative reality. Taleen Jamgotchian's set, including several elevated platforms, looks a bit too rickety to be completely safe; a couple of times, I worried that the actors were about to fall off of it.

Subjective's production of The White Plague is paced rather slowly, but the power of Capek's writing keeps the evening from ever becoming boring. Still, I would love to see the play given a fuller, more nuanced staging.