When "Judgment at Nuremberg" opens this week at MuCCC, it will mark the last full production directed by Michael Arvé, a director and actor with a long history in Rochester community theater.
Involved with theater since he was a high school student in Rochester, Arvé has taken part in a long list of plays — ranging from Sophocles to Edward Albee — and he has won awards as both director and actor, including a 1990 production of William Luce's "The Belle of Amherst," with Vicki Casarett playing Emily Dickinson, which many local theatergoers still remember affectionately.
Arvé remembers the Rochester theater scene in the 1960's and early 70's – in fact he is something of an encyclopedia on the subject.
"Basically community theater in Rochester consisted of the Rochester Community Players, the Blackfriars [Theatre], and the JY, which eventually became the Jewish Community Center's CenterStage," he says. Geva Theatre was a few years in the future, not to mention the current explosion of community theater groups large and small in Rochester.
In addition to acting and directing frequently in the area, Arvé started one of the first of those small community theater groups in the 1970's: Masque Enterprises. In 1994, Arvé moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, and started the Rainbow Theatre program, , sponsored by the AIDS Prevention Education Coalition; he also took part in AIDS education programs and training services, while acting in and directing other local theater productions.
Arvé returned to Rochester in 1999, and became immediately involved with Greater Rochester Repertory Companies, Writers and Books, the TANYS Community Theatre Festival, and RIT's OASIS, where he is on the teaching staff. He is also an Artist in Residence at MuCCC, where he has appeared in and directed many plays produced by John W. Borek — including "Judgment at Nuremberg," which Arvé says will be his last job directing a full production.
Arvé has played roles from Creon in "Antigone" to Matthew Brady in "Inherit the Wind." His most recent acting performance was December 2013 in the Screen Plays production "Parfumerie," playing the owner of a Budapest cosmetics store whose wife was cheating on him. This was a role he greatly enjoyed, in part because he was born in Budapest, living there until his family moved to Berlin when he was 18 months old.
Arvé's family left Germany for Rochester soon after World War II, sponsored by a cousin who lived here. But before he left, Arvé made his stage debut in a children's theater show in Berlin. "I was five," he says. "And I don't remember doing anything else since then."
The Nuremberg trials, held between 1945 and 1949, prosecuted surviving leaders of Nazi Germany (many were dead or escaped) for war crimes against the German civilian population. They were the first widely known exposure of the extent of Nazi atrocities in the Second World War.
For the play "Judgment at Nuremburg," Abby Mann adapted his 1957 television play and his screenplay for the famous 1961 movie, which won him an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. The play version of "Judgment at Nuremburg" had a brief run on Broadway in 2001. With its actual footage of the discovery of concentration camps after the liberation of Europe, and its exposure of complicity with Nazi Germany from the Vatican and from the Soviet Union, the movie, directed by Stanley Kramer, was hard-hitting in the 1950's and early 60's, when World War II was still a vivid memory. All three works examine the levels of guilt and responsibility among a population that was "just following orders" from their Nazi superiors and ask the questions: can one act morally in an immoral time? Are there just causes for terrible acts of genocide and other crimes?
The subject and Mann's treatment of the historical characters, however, makes for a dramatic and unsettling evening, even if it is almost 70 years since the actual trials. Enough so that "Judgment at Nuremberg" has become an essential literary document about the war and the Holocaust — standing with Elie Wiesel's "Night" and Anne Frank's "Diary of a Young Girl."
The movie is also recalled for its impressive string of star turns by actors playing the trial participants, among them Montgomery Clift, Burt Lancaster, Judy Garland, Spencer Tracy, Marlene Dietrich, and Maximilian Schell (who also won an Oscar for his performance as the German defense attorney).
Similarly, Arvé has an impressive list of local actors playing in the current stage adaptation — that's helpful, he remarks, saying that directing the play version of "Judgment at Nuremberg" is a challenge, since it lacks the visual drama of the movie. "It's a courtroom drama," Arvé says. "Kramer could vary the scenes with close-ups and wide shots, but the actors have to work more onstage to make it visually interesting."
Arvé has to guide a large cast of very different characters, but even with a play as complicated as "Judgment at Nuremberg," he doesn't overthink. "One thing I have learned in all my years in theater is: There are no absolutes," he says. "Sometimes directors say there can be only one way to play a role or a scene, There is always another way."
"Michael shows incredible sympathies and understanding for the needs of an actor," says Peter Doyle, who recently played Oscar Wilde in "Diversions and Delights" under Arvé's direction. He is playing the defendant, Ernst Janning, in "Judgment at Nuremberg," and finds the experience "supremely rewarding."
"As an actor himself, Michael realizes the importance of feedback," Doyle says. "He is, however, willing and able to give guidance and a roadmap where needed. He gave me the incredible gift of removing my fear of doing a solo show, and here his guidance is just as sure. "
While he calls "Judgment at Nuremberg" his "swan song," Arvé's theatrical life won't be completely inactive after the play ends its run. Doyle and Arvé are already planning to bring back "Diversions and Delights," and Arvé will remain a MuCCC Artist in Residence, working in the box office and greeting audience members at the front desk.