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‘Ganesh’ a chilling theatrical experience

“Ganesh Versus Third Reich” stars Brian Tilley (left) SimLaherty. | Jeff Busby

“Ganesh Versus the Third Reich” stars Brian Tilley (left) and Simon Laherty. | Jeff Busby

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When: Through May 19

Where: Museum of Contemporary Art Theatre, 220 E. Chicago

Tickets: $28

Info: (312) 397-4010;

Run time: 105 minutes, with no intermission

Updated: June 19, 2013 6:06AM

At one point in “Ganesh Versus the Third Reich” — the wholly astonishing and deeply provocative work by Australia’s Back to Back Theatre, at the MCA through Sunday only — Luke Ryan, who plays the role of a tyrannical theater director, shatters the fourth wall. He bluntly confronts us about our perceptions of the actors in the troupe — four men generally “perceived” as having intellectual and physical disabilities.

Turning to the audience, Ryan, who is handsome and able-bodied, says (and I paraphrase): “So, you’ve come to see a freak show? You’re just perverts, right, looking at edgy material?”

By this time, of course, we have come to love the four unorthodox actors in the extraordinarily multilayered work they have helped devise. And we are marveling, too, at the brilliance the show’s actual director, Bruce Gladwin, has brought to this deceptively complex work, and at the absolute power of his performers, whose sheer presence, as well as their ability to generate comedy, terror, empathy and absurdity, is nothing short of renmarkable.

There is a fascinating story being told in “Ganesh.” But beyond all else, this is a work of theater that explores the very act of acting in the most profound and moving ways. What is real, what is imagined, what is “acted”? What is that strange, often unknowable mix of madness and discipline that makes for a great performer, a convincing portrayal and an intriguing performer-generated piece of work? Is a performance an escape from the self, or the most complete realization of that self?

The pivotal story being “developed” and enacted here is a mythical quest by Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu deity revered as the “Remover of Obstacles,” who is sent to Berlin at the height of the Holocaust. His goal is to reclaim the ancient Hindu symbol of the swastika (initially a symbol of goodness), which has been co-opted by the Nazis and turned into the emblem of utter evil.

Along the way, the actors play themselves and their characters, with Ryan as Dr. Mengele, who, of course, had a perverse fascination with human abnormalities. The rotund, at times ornery Brian Tilley plays Ganesh. Mark Deans is the soulful, hug-giving witness to the rehearsal room antics. And Scott Price is the volatile guy who brings a sense of rage to the proceedings.

But the actor who might well haunt you from here to eternity is Simon Laherty — a small, fine-boned fellow of immense gravitas and focus who plays both Levi, the Jew in the concentration camp, and Hitler himself. He is chilling as both. And the train ride to Berlin, in which he is seated opposite Mengele, is one of the more chilling, amazingly orchestrated sequences you will see in any production.

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