It seemed to me that last year I saw a number of plays which were relatively unimaginative, and left me cold. Generally conventional in presentation, based on the type of story lines that you would find on a TV drama, the only thing that held real interest for me was the quality of the acting and, at times, the technical expertise involved in the production. Frankly, I could not decide if it were the scripts, or me, that had the problem.
This year, I am happy to say, the turnaround has been about 180 degrees. One big difference, perhaps, is that this year, much of what I have seen are dramatizations of books, rather than written from scratch scripts. (The only new script was Forum Theatre’s “Holly Down in Heaven”) Why this should make a difference in my appreciation, I don’t know, but by empirical evidence, it does.
First, we saw an adaptation of Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man at the Studio, which, using dialogue only from the book (which I have not read), led the audience on the journey of the invisible man (a very talented and charismatic nameless Southern black) from his days as a student in a black college to his time in NY, where all he wanted to do was succeed and achieve some semblance of the American dream, but where all the fates conspired against him, through no apparent fault of his own.
Then, last week, we saw Theater J’s extraordinary production of Our Class, a script written by author Tadeusz Slobodzianek, but based on Jan Gross’ frightening book “Neighbors”, which I had read a couple of years ago. “Neighbors” caused tremendous controversy when it was first published, particularly in Poland, because it told the story of the Nazi-era massacre of the Jews of Jedwabne, a village in Poland whose few thousand inhabitants were equally divided between Jews and Catholics. To my knowledge, in all of Poland during the period between the world wars, Catholics and Jews attended state run schools together, as the concept of the new Poland as constructed by Polish leader Josef Pilsudski, was to be a stated divorced from religion. This was the case in Jedabne, and Our Class begins with a scene in the school room and a number of young children (successfully played by adult actors) taking turns telling each other what they want to do when they grow up.
The play follows the classmates, and as they reach puberty, you see some schisms developing between some of the Christians and some of the Jews, just as you see others ignoring their differences and remaining close friends. When Pilsudski dies, you see his concept of a diverse Poland beginning to die – you see the growth of nationalist movements to which some of the students are attracted, you see the introduction of religious services (for the Catholics) into the school day. You hear about what is going on next door in Germany as Hitler takes power.
I don’t want to give away the story line in this short note. Suffice it to say that, with the except of three of the Jewish classmates (one who left with his family for America, one who converted and married a local Christian and was protected during the war, and one who was hidden by a Catholic classmate throughout the war in a hayloft, all of the Jews of Jedwabne (estimated to be about 1600) died, most by being herded into a large barn which was set on fire.
The reason that Gross’ book (well reserached – Gross is Polish born and currently a professor at Princeton) was so controversial, is that it demonstrated that the massacre at Jedwabne was orchestrated and carried out not by German storm troopers, but by Christian residents of Jedwabne. In Gross’ terms, the massacre was carried out by “neighbors”. In this play, the neighbors are “classmates”.
How could this have happened in a small community, where Jews and Catholics had lived together well for so long, where children went to school together, played together, studied together? This is the question that Gross tries to tackle – nationalism, anti-Semitism, greed, politics, all of the above? Whatever the reasons, it happened. And not very long ago.
There is much that is amazing about this play. Unlike The Invisible Man, the playwright not only had to write the dialogue, but he had to invent (for the most part) the characters, and had to put it all together to give it dramatic meaning, without seeming to obvious or didactic. He accomplished this fully.
But there is more. The ten actors, portraying five Catholics and five Jews, were not only each individually excellent, but they worked together as an ensemble very evenly. Washington Post critic Peter Marks, who applauded the production, had one problem, and that was with the Polish accents of the actors, which he said were both uneven and distracting. I did not find this to be the case at all.
The play is done basically without a set – the set is minimalist. There are ten plain wooden chairs and plain walls that give a sense of mid-century eastern Europe (at least to those of us who never were there at that time). The actors are able, without even extensive costume changes, to portray five year old children, and aging (no, aged) adults. There is music in show – traditional lyrics perhaps, I am not sure. It is my understanding that the script does not indicate how these “songs” are to be handled – recited, sung, etc. In this production, they were sung by the cast, without any instrumental accompaniment, and beautifully. I think that the melodies were composed, or put together, specially for this production (perhaps by what the program calls the “consulting musicologist”, Bret Werb). A distraction from the drama of the production? Again, not at all. It fit right in and it enhanced the story line.
Our Class runs through November 4 – everyone should try to see it. And high kudos (if that makes sense) to the entire cast and to director Derek Goldman. And also to dramaturg Stephen Spotswood, who I thought wrote particularly cogent program notes, providing the story of the great controversy over the publication of “Neighbors”, and the turmoil it caused in Poland, where the running line had been that it was not our fault, it was those damn Germans.
Further, just days after seeing Our Class, we attended a reading at Theater J (this time daughter Hannah as dramaturg) of a new play-in-progress based on George Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda”). A large crowd came to see the Friday afternoon reading, and a terrific audience it was, including a number of people well versed in Eliot’s book, and who were able to contribute a lot to a post-reading discussion. Deronda is the story of a young Englishman, raised by a ward, not knowing of his parentage, committed to benefit a world where he identifies with English aristocracy only to be drawn to a Jewish bookseller in London, and to a young lost girl, a Jewish girl who is ready to commit suicide. The playwright, Norman Allen, moves this story along (the book is over 700 pages long – the play is only about 2 hours) by introducing a character named Marian Evans (George Eliot’s true name) as, first a narrator (of course we all know that she is more than a narrator; she is the author of the plot and the creator of the characters) who herself is then drawn into the story, interacting with the characters, and discovering that they have developed lives of their own, well beyond her control. His use of the Eliot characters as character/author/narrator is ingenious and the actor who portrayed Ms. Eliot/Evans (sorry, I don’t have the brief program and don’t recall her name…..) was spot on.
Very different from The Invisible Man (where all the lines were Ellison’s), and Our Class (where all the lines were the playwright’s, but based on the factual story developed by the book), Daniel Deronda combined lines from Eliot and lines added by Allen. Each was successful.
What is next? The Shakespeare Theatre’s adaptation of Gogol’s “The Inspector General”, renamed “The Government Inspector”, which has received high praise and which again is an adaptation, rather than a literal dramatization, of the book. We will see how I like that one.