Posted by: strugglesome | October 22, 2011

Playing for Time: The Wilma Theater’s Our Class

If you ever have the chance to visit Yad Vashem, the center for holocaust research and memorial in Jerusalem, you will find yourself in the hall of names, which is a large circular room coated with bookshelves. Each one of those shelves houses a series of large binders. Each one of those binders is filled with sheets of paper. And each one of those sheets of paper there are names. And these are the names of all the Jews who died in the period from 1939 to 1945. And there is also a group of empty shelves, which live in silent reproach, waiting to be filled by all the other names, names we may never know. Those empty shelves are themselves a memorial, an acknowledgment of all the lives that have been erased as if they never existed, all the stories that will never be told, the names that will never again be spoken.

So when we chose to tell stories about those people and that time, and everything and everyone who was also involved, also exterminated, also destroyed by these epic and awful events, we have a responsibility, not just to the people we remember. but to the people we will never have the chance to know about. And it’s that responsibility that Tadeusz Słobodzianek’s Our Class, currently playing at The Wilma Theater, has taken on. Of course, that’s always the task performance takes upon itself, if you think about it, but we are never so conscious of that fact as when history gets involved.

And the history that’s at stake here is that of Poland, from the mid twenties up until almost the present day. The piece uses 10 individuals as a way to chart the history of the nation, and the world, by following each one of them from the school yard to the grave yard. The five Poles and five Jews (who, despite being Polish citizens, the issue of Polish speaking parents and Polish speakers, are never true Poles, and always just Jews. Welcome to the Chosen People. ) are all classmates, playing games and dreaming of their futures. Dora  (Emilie Krause) wants to be a movie star. Rachelka (Kate Czajkowski) plans to become a doctor. Rysiek (Kevin Meehan) wants to drive a wagon. Menachem’s (Ross Bechler) father is the local butcher, Zocha’s (Krista Apple) father is a farmer, Wladek’s  (Ed Swidey) mother is a pain in the neck. Abram (Michael Rubenfeld)  and Jakub (Matteo Scammell) are close friends, and Zygmunt (Allen Radway) is the ring leader of the Polish boys, supported by Heniek (Dan Hodge).   Each on of these students has a goal, a name, and a life ahead of them.

But Poland is a Catholic country famous for its pogroms and it’s poverty, so even in the blush of youth there is already a hint of hatred. While young Avram is sent off to the United States at the first rumbles of war, the rest of his class is not so lucky. War is always rife with betrayals, the betrayal of a government to its citizens, the betrayal of alliances and treaties, but the worst betrayals are the ones between people. And those betrayals fall fast and thick in Our Class, as the unnamed village (based on the real town of Jedwabne) moves from the hands of the Russians to the Germans and back again. And in that transition some 1600 or so Jews happen to get forced into a barn and immolated. Not by the Nazis and not by the Soviets, but by their fellow Poles. Their classmates. Their friends. This event is the central moment of the play, and the consequences of this horrific action are far-reaching, haunting the characters who survive until their deaths.

This is obviously a deeply moving and effecting story. That’s just a give-in. Holocaust themes are like underhanded throws, you could have almost no artistic talent and still leave an audience crying because the source material is just so strong. So when we are emotionally effected by this play, that’s only natural. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t make demands of the story, and ask that it be dramatically solid. And this particular play happens to be more than a little flawed. The build of the work rhythmically doesn’t support the climax of the barn burning nor does it sustain momentum through the end of the play. With the exception of Abram the piece lives in the worst of humanity, forgetting that though there are stories of horrific dehumanization and defeat, there are also stories of hope, of humanity, of strangers reaching through fear and degradation to help each other because the answer to “What could I have done” is almost always “You could have been a human being”.

There is also the issue of the audience. Given that this country is, in many ways, a nation of survivors, home to many fleeing genocide and ethnic cleansing, the central plot point of this piece comes as no surprise. While Polish audiences might reel from the fact that it was not the Nazis who burned and butchered the Jews of many small towns and villages across Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe, but the Poles themselves, we here in the United States are no strangers to these stories. For one thing, many of us lost whole histories in those events, whole family trees up in flames. For another, our understanding of these countries comes from a distance, and so we have the perspective to see the long-standing themes of antisemitism roll through Eastern European politics, religion and society like a bread truck.  The Nazis didn’t invent hating Jews. They just made it widely socially acceptable, and devastatingly efficient. So while massacre like this one my have been suppressed and swept under the rug from Polish consciousness, we live in the country of the Abrams, those sent on ahead, those left watching, and the survivors, those who walked through hell and somehow came out on the other side. We are no strangers to being betrayed by our neighbors.

Some of the characters are rich and fully realized  but some of them are vague, unspecific and one-dimensional. Radway’s ratty feral duplicitous Zygmunt (a role he executes beautifully and so strongly that you physically recoil from him whenever he speaks) is, one might assume, supposed to be a survivor, making immoral decisions in impossible times. Instead he’s an opportunistic villain who takes any opportunity to profit from the misery of others. He leads the gang who beat Scammell’s sensitive and wide-eyed Jakob to death. He betrays Meehan’s erratic and eager Rysiek to the Soviet police, and then, once he’s released from torture, encourages Rysiek to twist his obsession with Krause’s fragile yet matter of fact Dora into action with a brutal (but weakly handled) gang rape. He manipulates Rubenfeld’s wonderfully wounded but hopeful Abram into sending him money. He exploits Apple’s resilient and graceful Zocha into having (extremely quick, I guess they don’t have foreplay in Poland) sex with him, which she does to protect Beschler’s crystal clear and confidently executed Menachem. And he tries to get Czajkowski’s stoic and resigned Rachelka turned Marianna (she converts after being shut away like Jaycee Lee Dugard in Swidey’s wonderful and wonderfully oafish Wladek’s attic and marries her brutish Polish savior to survive) killed. And yet he lives to ripe old age. Billy Joel was right. Only the good die young.

Staged in Marsha Ginsberg’s beautifully desolate set, a spare cropping of leafless trees, a scattering of chairs, a barn that looks like a giant white greenhouse; each of the elements is deliberate and well used. Because the story has the distance of a memory-play, that is, it’s told from several degrees away from the real-time events, all the actors are onstage the whole time, even after their deaths or departures. With Karen Getz’ choreography the dead circle the living, creating morbid tangos and ghostly triangles, or singing haunting schoolyard chants (sound design, composition and music direction by Daniel Perestein) marking the end of each scene, or “lesson”. Thom Weaver’s impeccable lighting design bathes the piece in otherworldly light and picking out the few bright hues in Oana Botez-Ban’s simple but effective and period-neutral costumes. The cast is so deeply talented, moving together as one and living beautifully in the same world,  and the production so strong  and so thoughtful, that it would be easy to overlook the deep issues in the text. And many people may prefer to do that. But it is my personal opinion, as a human, and as a Jew, is that these stories are important, and they need to be told, and we need to insist that they are told as well as possible. Director Blanka Zizka and the artistic team behind this production clearly took that responsibility seriously. But Slobodzianek’s text, in trying to tell the story of “everyone”, sometimes just says nothing at all.

Nevertheless, this production is a skillful and profoundly effecting telling of some difficult but vital stories. And if the play itself doesn’t live up to its subject matter, well, what could? It’s important that we hear these stories, that we bear witness, and that we consider what we’ve seen. We owe it to ourselves, and we owe to each other. And we owe it to all the people whose names have been lost, but whose stories deserve telling. The Wilma Theater’s production of Our Class runs from now until November 13th. Tickets are available here.

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