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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘Voltaire & Frederick’ wields sophistication and grace

Published: October 26, 2012
Section: Arts, Etc.

The Center for German and European Studies presented “Voltaire & Frederick: A Life in Letters,” Monday to a full Mandel Center for the Humanities Atrium, exhibiting a show at the crossroads of history, philosophy, politics, biography and art.

The show brings noted Boston actors Thomas Derrah (Voltaire) and John Kuntz (Frederick) to campus, in a production imagined by Detlef Gericke-Schönhagen and directed by Guy Ben-Aharon. The small team brings together and presents a selection of letters exchanged between the philosopher Voltaire and his student and friend, Prince Frederick II, who in the course of their lifelong friendship, ascended to his role as the King of Prussia.

The crowning achievement of “Voltaire & Frederick” was its two stars. With literally no set besides the two chairs in which they sat, and nothing to create atmosphere aside from their presences, the two actors truly held the entire weight of the performance on their shoulders, and they carried it with ease and grace. Derrah and Kuntz, who boast impressive acting resumes, stepped effortlessly into the shoes of their characters. An additional challenge in portraying these real historical figures was that rather than follow a script in an imagined version of history, the performance consisted of the words of the historical figures themselves.

These actors portrayed an exact reality in the friendship between Voltaire and Frederick II, a challenge to which they truly rose. The two men brought life and investment to long-dead letters, giving them the weight and power to which they are due as correspondences between two great thinkers and, ultimately, flawed human beings—in Derrah and Kuntz, all the complexity of Voltaire and Frederick as men (rather than as respected historical figures) unfurls.

Though the actors did an incredible job of carrying the play, they did so without aid from their environment. Though the lack of set emphasized the play as the unfolding of a relationship rather than a conventional show, the venue of the Mandel Center for the Humanities Atrium was not particularly conducive to the performance. Without even dimmed lights, the overall immersion of the play suffered. It was difficult to become truly involved in the subtle relationship presented by “Voltaire & Frederick” in such an atmosphere. It was due to this, and not particularly to any flaw in the performance or story itself, that allowed the audience’s attention to wander.

Despite this issue of location, the play itself is a fascinating exploration of leadership, friendship and personal growth. At its beginning, Frederick II is only twenty-four, a student and follower of Voltaire, who was at that time already established and respected as a great philosopher. Over the course of the play, the audience watches Frederick grow from an enthusiastic youth and a compassionate prince, to a man bent under the weight of kingship. Under the pressure of a war that his dear friend condemns, Frederick struggles to be the philosopher king that Voltaire encouraged him to become. He continues on his quest to be the best man he can, while still falling prey to fallibilities of human nature and the corrupting influence of political clout. The result is a remarkably human portrait of the Prussian king, a rare and humanizing look at a man who we now know only by his deeds as a historical figure.

“Frederick and Voltaire: A Life in Letters” is true in every word as an unaltered exchange of letters, but the story of Frederick’s kingship plays out like fiction in its epic, compelling scale and in viewing Frederick as both a man and a character of history. Both characters command enormous sympathy despite their flaws, as fellow humans struggling to be the best kind of man they imagine. Though they both suffer many pitfalls along this path, pitfalls that for a long time estrange one from the other, their ultimate compassion and sincere desire to be earnestly good men both draws them back together as philosophers and wins the hearts of the audience.

“Frederick and Voltaire: A Life in Letters” was particularly compelling in that despite dealing with long-dead historical figures, it asks questions that are poignantly relevant to the modern day, particularly with a looming presidential election. The struggles that Frederick faces in trying to balance himself as an intellectual and political figure raises important questions about the people who lead, and what sort of person ought to serve as leader.

Despite flaws in venue, ultimately “Frederick and Voltaire: A Life in Letters” is fascinating in its marriage between history and humanity, as the audience meets Voltaire and Frederick, played respectively by the talented Thomas Derrah and John Kuntz as philosophers, leaders and ultimately, as men.