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Staging a show within a show as a critique of theatrical methods and conventions is not uncommon in experimental theater circles, but it’s not very often you see a company that has the courage to actually put a good show within a show for satirical deconstruction.
There’s even more than that to the very impressive Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, now being presented at the Walker Art Center by Back to Back Theatre. The titular show is a resonant and visually striking parable about the Indian god Ganesh going on a quest to reclaim the swastika—a symbol that originated in ancient India and was realigned and repurposed by Hitler. Adding a layer to that show is the fact that it’s performed by actors with intellectual disabilities…and then Back to Back dramatizes the process of that show’s creation, with a director who does not have a disability (Luke Ryan) becoming increasingly frustrated as cast members raise ethical objections. This, of course, is the show we’re “really” watching.
Ganesh operates on many levels, and works on all of them. The delicate matter of problematizing the artist-director relationship when intellectual disabilities are involved works so well here in large part because it’s so deftly connected to other questions of privilege and appropriation. Perhaps the greatest achievement of Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, though, is just how entertaining it is—it’s a very funny show that’s mercifully aware of the absurdity of the whole theatrical enterprise.
I left Ganesh thinking about issues of power and privilege in my own life, which is not something I can say after most shows about “issues of power and privilege.” I also left embarrassed that I’ve never seen a show by Interact, our local company of theater artists with disabilities. Interact bills itself as “including unique perceptions from those who have not been part of creating the artistic vocabulary.” That’s a lot of jargon, but it gets at a truth. Here’s another truth: the artists, with and without disabilities, at Back to Back Theatre have created one of the season’s most compelling shows.