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On the Scene: Priming 'Primo' for the Stage

July 7, 2005 By:
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With the fireworks of the Fourth an echt echo of freedoms forever celebrated, Sir Antony Sher gets ready to stand on stage - the fuse of history in hand - and let his soul explode in a shower of heartache that lights up the Broadway sky as no other play has done in decades.

Let liberty ring, the actor seems to project from the stage while cautioning the need to also pay heed to the timpannies of tyranny.

The eminent South African-born actor/writer knighted by the Queen of England is about to share a two-edged sword that comes from astounding and astonishing an audience into stone silence, whetting his words with a saber-rattling reading.

Such is Sher's shattering accomplishment in his one-man show of the thousand emotions that seared the soul of Primo Levi, the onetime chemist of Turin, Italy, who discovered life's equation yielded inequities and injustice as he found himself out of his element in Auschwitz.

"Primo" is primed to snatch the insouciance of summer from Broadway theater when it opens July 11 after several previews at the Music Box Theatre.

How ironic that a show of shadows and shades of characterization should prove to be a music box of memories, provided by a classical actor so in tune with times past it is as if he has had a special correspondence with Levi.

Indeed, letter-perfect in so many ways, Sher's performance does correspond to an epistolary relationship between actor/writer and survivor.

Which it was. In his book, Sher shares accounts of writing "letters" to Levi - posted in Sher's journal - as the actor used the extraordinary exchange to try to overcome what he calls the Fear - stage fright at performing.

Fear not - Sher has overpowered it, through therapy and theatrical derring-do. "Doing a one-man show is certainly a cure for it," he laughs.

Credit to the Source

What Sher has done more than anything in this great National Theatre of Great Britain production - with the assist of a director (Richard Wilson) who believes that minimalism is more - is serve as theatrical witness to what Levi lived through.

But, please, says Sher, in deep deference to Levi, don't call his work an adaptation; Sher prefers giving credit where it is due - to Levi's words - and describes the script instead as "an abridgment" of Levi's memorable memoir, If This Be a Man.

But if truth be told, this "abridgment" expands the conscience - focusing as it does on the unconscionable hate and horrors Levi and other Jews endured during the war.

His movement on stage purposeful and powerful, stepping between dark entrails of history, Sher shares the pains and the prospects of a man who suffered from debilitating bouts of depression in real life long before Auschwitz showed him how depressing mankind can really be.

It is a theatrical hero's portrayal of a hero … but, no, says Sher, Levi never thought of himself as a hero, "but as a witness."

Has Sher witnessed any change in himself since taking on the role last year?

"I have a strong sense of Jewishness that hasn't changed," one that is secular rather than religious, he says.

Yet, Sher is not immune from change. "In my early adulthood, I tried to deny all aspects of my identity," says the 62-year-old actor of "my Jewishness, gayness and my white South Africaness" - that aspect stemming from shame of his nation's legacy of apartheid.

"I just wanted to belong to a majority, to not only be accepted - but embraced!"

What Sher has embraced with age is a maturity of artistic merit that moves in tandem with his self-evolvement as a mensch - all so deliciously described in his book, Primo Time, an exquisite account of life upon - and behind - the stage.

Possible to Prepare?

But was Sher prepared for the enervating and unenviable emotional process that would be "Primo"? "You can't work on a piece like this that takes you as close as possible to actually being in the Holocaust without being affected," he says, while strongly emphasizing that he is in no way about to compare his trials and tribulations to the real hell Levi endured.

Sher's stunning work on stage is a lustrous reading of Levi's life, but it was Primo's memoir that served as the actor's macabre travel book of a tortured time. "The book feels like Primo Levi takes the reader by the hand and says, 'I'll guide you around hell now' - you can't have gone on that tour without being affected by it."

Affectation-free, Sher's stage presence is a gift of minimalism albeit one that takes its off-stage toll. "The show carries a certain strain," says Sher, which explains its 32-performance only run in New York.

Exhausting for the actor - exhaustive in its emotional canvass of the witness as a wayward victim of history.

Sher has been applauded by critics and audience for his work - although not necessarily immediately. "The show creates a strange silence," he says of theatergoers too stunned to make a sound, "one I've not known from an audience before. It is an odd and quite stressful experience. It is an electrified silence."

Reaction to an electrifying performance - one whose demands dictate a break from the claustophobic confines of an onstage concentration camp.

"After New York will be the end of it," asserts Sher. "I don't want to continue to do it."

He continues to be heartened by its effect on audiences, but such a one-man show is one way to sap strength even while serving as a restorative to the mind.

One needn't be a chemist - as Levi was - to know that "the chemistry of having other actors on stage is important. I kind of suspected that this kind of form wouldn't be up my street."

But, for the time being, he is about to intellectually invigorate 45th Street, where the Music Box stands.

Which makes Sher's New York engagement akin to a signed, limited-edition literary lithograph.

But, oddly enough, Sher wasn't almost allowed to sign off on his masterpiece. "It was the craziest, stupidest thing I've ever done," he says of writing "Primo" before gaining permission from the Levi estate to stage it.

Of course, "as it turns out, it was the most sensible thing I did."

Indeed, had he known that the estate was so dead set against granting any permission for adaptations of Levi's work - and other writers had been denied access - Sher would never have begun in the first place.

But the Levi family did accede eventually. "I won the honor to do this," says Sher humbly.

And what an honor it would have been to meet the illuminous Levi, who died a suicide in 1987, a victim arguably not of his experience in Auschwitz, but of his own mental demons. "He had long been a depressive, remember," says Sher.

And of that imaginary meeting? "I don't know if I'd be coherent," says Sher of the hypothetical handshake and greeting with Levi.

"He has meant so much in my life that I'd probably be a blubbering wreck.

"And all I would be able to say is … 'Thank you.' "

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