A group of Auschwitz prisoners, waiting for their potential call to death, decide to put God on Trial to determine if He is guilty of breaking His covenant with His chosen people. The show is playing at First Central Congregational Church under the auspices of the Brigit St Brigit Theatre Company.
Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s script doesn’t just tug at your heartstrings. It drives a knife into your chest and gouges a hole in your heart. It paints a brutally realistic picture of life in a death camp as the prisoners look starved and beaten and you can feel them desperately clinging to their last thread of self-control as they constantly dread the summons to the gas chamber that hangs over their heads like the Sword of Damocles. Cottrell-Boyce’s taut and crisp dialogue really sells the trial as the prisoners argue over all facets of God. Does He exist? Is He just and loving? Is He not all powerful? Why would He allow His chosen people to suffer such an abomination? Is He no longer on their side? This show is really going to make you think and the utter silence I heard at the play’s end is the best tribute to its power which I can conceive.
Murphy Scott Wulfgar provides an immersive piece of direction. The staging will make you feel like a fellow prisoner as the actors weave between audience members and perform inches from your face. The coaching is sterling. His performers shine in a series of monologues that will leave you feeling raw and wrung out. The reactions of the prisoners are precise and exact. In fact, one of the play’s strongest scenes is a moment of about two minutes of silence except for the sounds of a new group of prisoners being indoctrinated into Auschwitz (courtesy of Eric Griffith’s soundscape work). The far-off sounds of heads being sheared combined with the fearful and haunted looks of the prisoners make it one of the best ensemble scenes of the season.
This play totally eschews the typical form for a show as there is no leading character. Nearly everyone gets a moment to shine and provide a vital piece of the puzzle. Some of the sensational performances you see come from Jack Zerbe who sizzles as Kuhn, a man who retains his childlike faith even in these dire circumstances and understands the true meaning of sacrifice. Jeremy Earl gives the most honest and gut-wrenching performance of his career as Jacques, a French Jew whose use of logic leads him to a dark and hopeless place. Michael Lyon stirs as the judge for the trial who hides a secret of his own. Thomas Lowe pulverizes your soul as a father who watched his children taken away from him by the Nazis.
Scott Working is thoroughly believable as Schmidt, a rabbi who assumes the role of God’s defense counselor. Always maintaining his calm, Working’s Schmidt elucidates the history of God with His chosen people and points out how serious blows to the Jewish people led to greater good for them and this period could simply be a test for them or even a purification ushering in the arrival of the longed for Messiah. His defense of God centers around His mysterious nature and how His ways are not our ways and man’s misuse of free will.
On the other side of the table is the prosecutor, Mordechai, as essayed by Murphy Scott Wulfgar. What I liked best about Wulfgar’s portrayal was that he ignored the obvious choice of anger. Instead, he infuses Mordechai with an interesting blend of frustration, weariness, and logical induction. Unlike Schmidt, Mordechai doesn’t use scripture to back his arguments. Rather he uses the defense’s own words and examples and inverts them to prove that God is callous and doesn’t care for His special people.
Anthony Clark-Kaczmarek is spellbinding as Akiba. Silent for most of the show, his one extended monologue manages to fuse the arguments of Mordechai and Schmidt into one combined entity. A rabbi himself, Akiba is able to use scripture just as easily as Schmidt, but his arguments based off those scriptures support Mordechai as he argues God was never good, just merely on the side of the Jewish people. Now, he argues, God is merely with someone else and they are suffering the fates of the Egyptians, the Amalekites, the Kenites, and others decimated by God.
Courtney Sidzyik’s simple set of wooden bunks and benches combined with a low, almost moonish, light bring a depressing reality to Auschwitz. Charleen Willoughby’s costumes excel with the ill-fitting prison uniforms and cheaply made Star of Davids identifying the Jews and the green triangles signifying the criminals.
The church is not sound acoustically. As such it was difficult to make out dialogue at certain points as the walls just sucked up the sound so the actors are really going to need to belt it in order to be understood, even with the audience so close.
This show is going to smack you across the face with its level of complexity. It asks very difficult questions whose answers may be easy or hard depending on where you are on the spectrum of faith as well as shining a light on man’s hideous cruelty to his fellow man. Yet even in all the evil and hardship, there is still the kernel of hope. אנחנו עדיין כאן (We are still here).
God on Trial plays at First Central Congregational Church through April 17. Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets start at $35 and can be obtained by visiting www.bsbtheatre.com or calling 402-502-4910. First Central Congregational Church is located at 421 S 36th St in Omaha, NE.