It was 1939, and silent film sensation Charlie Chaplin – the highest-paid entertainer in the world – was trying to make his first talkie.
But “The Great Dictator,” a scathing spoof of Hitler, faced opposition from two directions. The more expected of the two was from the German Consul in Hollywood, whose job was to minimize the film industry's criticism of the Third Reich. But the second, ironically, came from United Artists, the studio Chaplin had co-founded with Mary Pickford (called “America’s Sweetheart”) and others. Though the two were friends, they disagreed about how to handle the pressure.
It was a time before the United States entered World War II, and anti-Semitism was rampant. Nazis showed up at Hollywood parties, and Chaplin, “accused” of being Jewish, made a statement that became famous: “I do not have that honor.”
Eventually, “The Great Dictator,” concerning a Jewish barber whose mustache gets him mistaken for Hitler, was released to great acclaim. And, after America entered the war, public opinion shifted considerably against Nazism.
John Monogiello, president and artistic director of the non-profit Gaithersburg-based theater group Best Medicine Rep, has fashioned these historical elements into the play and BMR’s next production, “The Consul, the Tramp, and America’s Sweetheart.”
“I wrote the play a few years ago, and it was done in a few places,” said Monogiello. “But this marks its Maryland debut.”
An article about the Nazis' attempts to control Hollywood “fascinated” him and inspired the writing of the play, for which Monogiello has won honors, including the Julie Harris Playwriting Award. What amazed Monogiello about the article was that it made no mention of Charlie Chaplin, but being a “historic buff,” he did further research on his own.
Actor John Tweel calls “The Consul, etc.” a “true ensemble show, with no stars” among the four-person cast. But it’s likely many eyes will be upon him as he plays Chaplin off-screen, with a shock of white hair and no “Little Tramp” persona.
While Tweel has taken classes at DC’s Studio Theatre, has performed in several shows (including some at the now-defunct American Century Theatre), and participated in a staged reading last spring at Best Medicine Rep, this show represents a more significant challenge.
When Tweel, who is a silent film comedy aficionado (although more a fan of Buster Keaton than Chaplin) received a copy of the script from Monogiello, he “loved it.” However, Tweel's appreciation for Chaplin has grown since director Stan Levin cast him as the versatile actor/writer/director/composer.
“’The Great Dictator’ is one of the major Chaplin films I hadn’t seen, so I went to see it,” said Tweel. “We reenact some of it in the play.”
He also listened to a YouTube 1955 BBC radio interview with Chaplin – whom he calls “one of the first superstars.”
“The interview gave me more insight into him,” said Tweel. “Chaplin grew up in abject poverty but found the strength to bring joy to the world. I try to tape into that joy.”
Director Stan Levin had worked with Monogiello before, overseeing such staged readings as “Dream Date.”
“’The Consul, etc.’ is a phenomenally well-written script, and I was intrigued since it was based on a true incident,” said Levin, who teaches film history to seniors at Johns Hopkins University. “John wrote a very clever script that is about humor and fear – combined into one,” he said.
The play is also surprising, Levin added, in that Mary Pickford’s secretary becomes the narrator, rather than the more famous characters.
The play contains references to Chaplin’s “womanizing,” he said. “But more importantly, it is about a moral choice.”
“The Consul, the Tramp, and America’s Sweetheart” runs Jan. 18 through Feb. 10 at Best Medicine Rep. Its theater space is located on the second floor of the Lakeforest Mall at 701 Russell Avenue, Gaithersburg. Easiest access is via the Green Flower entrance.
For more information, visit www.bestmedicinerep.org.