J’accuse la Divinite

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.

Ashes to Ashes

Sholem Asch is a young, hungry Jewish playwright who wishes to write stories about his people that show they are just as flawed and human as anyone else.  Members of his own community refuse to let him produce his play, The God of Vengeance, in Yiddish theatre as they perceive his work as anti-Semitic, so he takes the show on the road.  After a long, successful run in Europe, he manages to bring his show to Broadway.  Then trouble really begins for his show.  This is Indecent by Paula Vogel and is currently playing at the Blue Barn Theatre.

Assuredly, this is one of the most difficult and challenging shows I’ve seen produced in quite a while.  Ms Vogel’s script borrows from quite a few genres:  drama, musical, comedy, Yiddish, play in a play, and wraps it in a sheen of surrealism that gives the production an almost dreamlike quality.  This quality is well suited to this show as it is a show of memories of what once happened.  Going along with the motif of memory, which is a tricky thing, after all, some of the events depicted are fiction or embellished.

Ms Vogel’s script well handles the difficulties Asch faced with his script.  Some of the subject matter and themes in The God of Vengeance such as blasphemy, prostitution, and homosexuality are still taboo by today’s standards, let alone in the early 1900s when they would have been viewed as downright abhorrent by society, especially American society.  Even worse was the fact that many missed the point Asch was attempting to make due to only seeing the surface of his work and not digging a little deeper.

Truthfully, this show would test the mettle of any director, but Susan Clement-Toberer rises to the challenge and manages to merge all of this play’s disparate elements into a rock solid production.  Not only has she led her troupe to stellar, nuanced performances, but she was quite creative with her staging and transitions.  From having her actors sitting on stage before the show, still as statues until the lights breathe life into them, to original transitions using song, dance, and music, this show is a master’s level class in direction and storytelling.

Ezra Colon sizzles in his Blue Barn debut as Sholem Asch.  He well essays the young Asch as a youthful, energetic artist bound and determined to tell stories about his people.  One of my favorite moments was the respectful defiance he showed to his leaders and peers at the play’s first reading as he knows what he is saying with his play and is confident that he can find ears receptive to its message, even if those ears are others than his own community.

Colon is equally as impressive as a middle aged Asch and he somehow seems to age decades in a matter of moments with a slump of his shoulders and a haggard, wearied expression on his face.  His whole being seems to wonder if his work is a noble fight or a curse as trouble mounts for the Broadway production.  He finds himself unable to properly defend the work or his troupe due to his limited command of English and things he has witnessed as part of a delegation which have broken him in half spiritually.

Jonathan Purcell provides a powerhouse performance as Lemml.  He works wonders as the shy tailor whose eyes are opened by Asch’s work which he considers a life changing masterpiece from the very beginning.  Watching him tentatively begin a new career as stage manager for The God of Vengeance to growing into a confident, new person who takes full command of the show to keep it alive is a complete and utter joy.

Suzanne Withem is marvelous in multiple roles.  With a pair of glasses and shawl, she is Asch’s supportive, loving wife, Madje, and the first fan of his bold script.  With a change of clothes and a slightly vacuous expression, she becomes Virginia McFadden, an inexperienced performer who has taken the role solely to shock her parents on multiple levels.  But her best role is that of Ruth/Reina, the Yiddish actress who originally portrays Rifkele in the American production of The God of Vengeance.  She is proud of her Yiddish identity and has much in common with her character, right down to knowing the love of another woman.  Her scenes with her lover, Dorothee Nelson/Dine, are some of the best in the show as they are charged with a raw power and honesty and I consider “The Rain Scene” one of the best moments I’ve ever seen mounted on a stage.

Leanne Hill Carlson also lights it up in multiple roles.  But her two best are Freida Neimann, a slightly egotistical and prejudiced actress who finds her characters through intuition as opposed to reading the script and Dorothee Nelson/Dine, the American Manke for The God of Vengeance.  Her chemistry with Ms Withem just ripples with life and she well plays the age old agony of love vs career as the chance to be a Broadway star nearly causes her to sever her relationship with Ruth/Reina as well as subsume her ethnic identity to be more palatable to American audiences.

Strong supporting performances are supplied by D. Scott Glasser, especially as Nakhmen, a Jewish scholar who opposes Asch’s script; Judy Radcliff, as her portrayal of Esther Stockton playing the role of Sarah in The God of Vegeance provides some wonderful levity; and Jonathan Wilhoft who shines as I.L. Peretz, a Polish writer who gently advises Asch to burn his script.  Samuel Bertino, Kate Williams, and Olga Smola also do fine work as a trio of musicians who provide the score of the production.

Steven Williams provides a beautiful, broken down stage with its cracked and crumbling walls and raised platform.  His lights are equally good and quite ethereal at points, especially with the ghostly blue of “The Rain Scene”.  Georgiann Regan’s costumes are spot on.  Fine examples of her work are the quiet elegance of Asch’s suits, the well-made, but lower quality garb for Lemml, and the deadly accurate Hasidic dresses for the women.  Bill Kirby sounds are inspired and his use of artillery effects towards the end had me jump out of my seat.  Melanie Walters provides some unique choreography for scene transitions.

Indecent is the epitome of the Blue Barn mission and makes for an interesting case study into The God of Vengeance. Was it the work that was corrupting or was it corrupted by others once it hit American shores?  What was the play’s truth and did it get lost in the presentation?  Was it a curse or a blessing?  You may ask yourselves these and other questions as you watch the production.  You may not come up with a definitive answer, but you’ll certainly have a lot of food for thought.

Indecent plays at the Blue Barn through April 14.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm with the exception of a 6pm performance on April 7.  The shows for March 23, 30, and April 6 are sold out.  Tickets are $35 ($30 for seniors) and are available at www.bluebarn.org or at the box office at 402-345-1576.  Due to mature subject matter, this show is not suitable for children.  The Blue Barn is located at 1106 S 10th St in Omaha, NE.

The Weight of Faith and Secrets

On a stormy night, Confederate solider, Captain Caleb DeLeon, returns home (a wonderfully gutted manor designed by Jeffery Stander) shortly after the Confederacy’s surrender at Appomattox.  He finds the family’s major-domo (and freed slave), Simon, still guarding the house.  Later joined by another former family slave, John, the three men realize it is Passover and have a traditional Jewish seder in which secrets are revealed in Matthew Lopez’s gripping drama, The Whipping Man, now playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Lopez’s script is one of the most thought provoking pieces of drama I’ve seen produced in a very long time.  It asks the audience questions of identity, what it really means to be free and to be a slave, the cost of secrets, and the price of faith.  Director Stephen Nachamie expertly navigates the multiple layers and themes of the show with well paced, skillful direction and has culled some powerful performances from his three actors.

Andy Prescott gives a fine accounting of himself in his debut performance at the Playhouse as Caleb DeLeon.  As DeLeon, Prescott demonstrates a great understanding of the use of body language as his character starts the show with a severely gangrenous left leg.  Every step had the audience wincing with him as he shuddered, gasped, and groaned from the pain.  Prescott is simultaneously sympathetic and unlikable as the former Confederate solider.  In some ways, he is more a slave than Simon and John as he is imprisoned by his culture, his cowardice, and his immaturity.  Yet he also has the soul of a poet and not as ingrained in the mindset of slavery as some of his contemporaries.

Prescott has a wonderful speaking voice which is capable of some very beautiful nuances.  This is especially crucial to his role as DeLeon is confined to a chair for the bulk of the play due to the amputation of his leg. But  I also thought that gift of voice could have been put to better use in some of the more dramatic moments.  A couple of poignant scenes seemed slightly too underplayed  and could have used a wider range of expression and emotion.

As Simon, Carl Brooks demonstrates complete mastery of his craft with a meticulously detailed performance.  Brooks’ presence is incredible as he fills the room with warmness, humility, and humanity.  Brooks’ Simon was brought up in Judaism as part of this household and he is very devout in that faith.  When he realizes that it is Passover, he decides to improvise a Jewish seder (Passover meal) which now means more to him than ever before since he is finally free and now has a true kinship with and understanding of his spiritual brethren on the night of the Exodus.

Brooks’ performance is flawless.  He ably moves from beat to beat, switching between joy, anger, pity, frustration, and concern on the turn of a dime.  Brooks also expertly handles the Hebrew pronunciation and possesses a fine singing voice as demonstrated during the seder.

Luther Simon’s cynically happy-go-lucky essaying of John brought a unique combination of lightness and darkness to the play.  As John, Simon presents a front of being jokey and lackadaisical.  But this front only serves to hide a very deep-seated hatred of his former life as a slave and his sense of betrayal by Caleb during a previous incident with the unseen whipping man.  Although he is now a free man, John is more of a slave than ever.  He is enslaved by  the bottle, by lying, by greed, and he is imprisoned in Richmond due to a life altering choice.  In turns, Simon is amusing and haunting.

Mounting a drama of this type requires a colossal amount of energy on the parts of the actors.  This is especially true for this show as each actor has enough dialogue for a one man show and must work his way through innumerable beats and moments.  This can severely tire a performer and was a bit noticeable in tonight’s show as it took a bit for the actors to really get going and their energy started to flag a bit at the end.  This in no way shortchanged this powerful tale which could be one of the finest dramas mounted this theatre season.

“This is who we are,” says Simon at one point.  And who they are was not determined by what they were born into, but rather by the choices that lead the characters to the climax of this sensational drama.

The Whipping Man will be performed at the Omaha Community Playhouse until November 16.  Performances are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  The show deals with sensitive subject matter and contains some adult language.  It is not recommended for children.  Tickets cost $36 ($22 for students).  Contact the box office at 402-553-0800 or visit http://www.omahaplayhouse.com.  The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.