50 years of theater

Youngstown State University will celebrate the 50th anniversary season of its University Theater with the world premiere of a play by one of its former students.

“Tribunal” was written by Mark Milo “Mickey” Kessler, a 1971 Boardman High School and 1995 Youngstown State University graduate.

“I’m deeply honored that they would consider doing my work this way,” Kessler said during a telephone interview from Marietta, where he is an associate professor of English and literature at Washington State Community College. “It’s very touching they would do this for the 50th anniversary.”

Kessler, who also has a master’s degree in playwrighting from Carnegie Mellon University, didn’t take a traditional path through YSU. He started there after high school but left to study acting in New York, where he lived from 1976 to 1982. He came back to work in the family business before re-enrolling at YSU as a Russian major in 1990. He dropped out a second time before returning and earning his degree in theater in 1995.

His studies at YSU, particularly with retired history professor and Holocaust scholar Saul Friedman (who died earlier this year), helped inspire “Tribunal.”

The play opens during the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. Hannelore, a Nazi looking to escape the consequences of her actions by going to South America, meets a translator working on the trial, and their relationship makes her re-examine her ideology. The drama also looks years later at the judgment – or, more accurately, the lack of judgment – many of the Nazi war criminals faced in their lifetimes.

Kessler said he was inspired by the concept of ideology triumphing over rationality, and he believed the idea was relevant in contemporary politics.

“The Nazi era was just probably the most vivid example in history of ideology triumphing over rationality,” he said. “I’m not saying we’re entering into another Nazi era. There is no moral equivalent; however, there are a lot of lessons to be learned.”

The challenge was to make it work as a drama and tell the story through the characters, instead of making it an editorial about an idea.

“Tribunal” is being directed by Tracy Schuler Vivo, who also is a YSU graduate. Kessler will attend a post-performance reception and discussion following the final performance on Oct. 27, but he otherwise has taken a hands-off approach to the production.

“I tried not to interfere with her process,” he said. “She was very kind to let me spend a couple of hours with the cast, getting to know them and answering their questions … Drama is an interpretive art. The dramatist is like a composer. We’re just putting black marks on paper and giving it to someone else to put in front of an audience. You have to trust their process.”

The cast features Mark Warchol, Carly Magnuson, Connor Bezeredi, Matthew Malloy, Cameron Beebe, Eric Shonk, Zara Markman and Natalie Martzial.

He is looking forward to seeing what they’ve done with his script.

“I was very impressed when I met the students, and a couple dramaturgy students have called to interview me for a class, and I’ve been impressed by the very high standards they’re showing in theater studies. I saw some of the preliminary work from the designers and, again, it is really quite gratifying when you see your work given life by others in ways that are really fascinating, things that I never would have thought of but that I think will work quite well.”