A large part of Casablanca’s legend lies in the wealth of anecdotal and documentary evidence suggesting that the train of its existence should have derailed many times before it arrived at the highest point in the Hollywood canon. Every movie production emerges from a fog of controlled chaos, but the specific circumstances surrounding Casablanca’s genesis have kept movie buffs transfixed for generations; it’s this fascination that provides the new play CasablancaBox, now being performed at the HERE Arts Center, with both its design and its thrust. Running a dense ninety minutes, CasablancaBox weaves a raucous show-biz comedy (think Noises Off! on a 1942 Hollywood soundstage) together with free-associating, Run Lola Run–style fragmentation and occasional bursts of song. The real Casablanca, the one that belongs to us as well as the play, emerges from negative space and, when possible, video clips projected onto canvas frames hoisted aloft by actors and crew, meticulously timed to supplement, validate, and even contradict the live performance.
Players and technicians alike, collaborators fundamental and incidental to the 1942 classic, take turns sharing their seemingly isolated experiences in Hollywood and Europe. M and The Maltese Falcon actor Peter Lorre struggles with his concealed heroin addiction, as sensual shadows whisper his Ugarte dialogue back to him in cruel jest. Michael Curtiz relates the horrors of animal abuse and slaughter on the set of his 1936 epic The Charge of the Light Brigade. Austrian, Polish, and German extras bicker about their reduced status, in contrast to what they were accustomed to before the Nazis took power and sent them packing. These recollections adorn the play with a dark fringe that the film itself is scarcely able to access.
CasablancaBox often plays fast and loose with the facts, compressing time to ensure that the fractalized super-story includes crucial life events that may not have happened yet, if they happened at all. Bergman’s legendary (and scandalous) affair with Italian auteur Roberto Rossellini, for instance, began in 1949 — even hinting at it here is like telling the story behind Citizen Kane that mentions Orson Welles meeting his late-in-life partner, Oja Kodar. Similarly, Bogart’s wife, the alcoholic whirling dervish Mayo Methot, appears to have foreknowledge that Bogey is leaving her for a nineteen-year-old — referring, of course, to Lauren Bacall, and a split that was still two years away.
These sorts of compressions and omissions aren’t exactly tantamount to suggesting that Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landing. The outer perimeter of stories told by CasablancaBox, true and sorta-true alike, build on each other in surprising ways, contributing to the project’s overarching theme that anything can go wrong, nothing lasts, and everything that’s truly brilliant likely only happened by accident. It’s a theme that connects many of the concerns on the play’s agenda, from displacement (distant echoes of which can be found in the refugee crisis of the present day) to the rush of romantic battles, which seem to eclipse the world when you’re fighting in one.
Occasionally, the actors may slip out of character: A commanding Kevin R. Free will give his Curtiz impersonation a moment’s rest and speak instead as the actor playing Curtiz, wondering aloud why any of this moviemaking guff makes sense when the world is blowing itself to hell. It’s a risky digression that works because it’s only one rupture in a thousand, and, anyway, it’s a relevant question. The brilliant Roger Casey switches in and out of his bravura Bogart impersonation, nailing the star’s rough-suave New York City timbre, or, depending on the requirements of a given scene, speaking more plainly. And if you’ve never given the tragic Methot (a luminous Erin Treadway) a second thought, or even a first one, chances are she’ll haunt you and any future glimpses of Bogart you might enjoy.
It isn’t all tragedy and suffering: CasablancaBox is a brisk ninety minutes of entertainment first and foremost, a breakneck-paced behind-the-scenes comedy in the style of Truffaut’s Day for Night, catnip even for the most casual cinephile. The writer and director, Sara and Reid Farrington, respectively, make plain their fascination not only with the movie itself, but with the string of miracles that kept the whole enterprise from certain dissolution or mediocrity. As much a dance between the actors as between the stage performers and the precisely timed multimedia (the men and women controlling the special effects deserve curtain calls of their own), CasablancaBox is no vanilla tribute to the safest member of the American movie canon. Rather, it embodies its subject through design and theme, cramming together as much energy and detail as its running time permits, in the end mirroring Casablanca as an overfull steamer trunk forced shut under protest, ever on the point of bursting apart.
145 Sixth Avenue
Through April 29
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 17, 2017