Can the stage produce anything about the anti-Semitism that culminated in the horrors of the Holocaust that we haven’t already seen? Well, I’ve seen a lot of plays related to the Holocaust, but I have never seen a play structured like Our Class, currently being produced by Son of Semele in the southern space of Atwater Village Theatre.
Although the production had been scheduled to close yesterday, five additional performances have now been scheduled after a brief break. That extension is a welcome mitzvah.
The extension of Our Class also happens to coincide with a mighty revival of the musical Parade, which tells the story of what was probably America’s worst outbreak of the same fever that later would slaughter so many Jews in Europe.
But first, Our Class. Playwright Tadeusz Slobodzianek set most of it in a small town in Poland, his homeland. It’s a part of the world that was assaulted by a whipsaw in the prelude to World War II — conquered first by the Soviet Union and then by the Nazis, before returning to East Bloc communism after the war.
Our Class is fictional, but it’s based on the killings of most of the Jews who lived in the small town of Jedwabne, northeast of Warsaw, in 1941. This incident took place after the Nazis seized control of the town, and for years the Nazis got most of the blame for it. But in the last 15 years, historians have concluded that in fact the Nazis primarily provided cover for the dastardly deeds committed by the ostensibly Christian villagers against their Jewish neighbors.
Slobodzianek wrote about a group of 10 classmates — half of them from Catholic families, the other half from Jewish families. The saga begins in the late ‘20s, when the children play together amicably enough. But during the ‘30s, the poison from what we assume is happening in the adult society around the children gradually filters into their lives, culminating in the horrors of 1941. And that’s just the end of the first act.
After intermission, the play follows the survivors of the war all the way into the 21st century, while those who have died watch silently, mostly from the sidelines. By the end, it becomes clear that the savagery of 1941 has virtually ruined the survivors — including the remaining perps — to such an extent that they occasionally envy those who died.
Our Class is an intimate epic — reducing the scope of a world war down to these 10 people from this one town, but at the same time extending its examination of these 10 for more than 80 years.
For Son of Semele’s West Coast premiere, director Matthew McCray realized that the group’s own 36-seat space on Beverly Boulevard was simply too tiny for a play of this size, but he has retained the intimacy in Atwater by limiting seating to 50, who sit in a single row around the entire square stage.
In an email, he explained his decision to produce in the round at Atwater Village:
“This play, which sometimes has five or six different narratives happening at the same time, needed more space for the audience to be able to track who was doing what. And I also felt that the extra space would be helpful for the audience on a comfort level as well, because the play is so intense emotionally.”
Obviously, a play that covers so many decades has to reject realism. Much of the story is narrated in story theater style. The same actors play their roles from childhood into old age (at least for those who survive the longest), so suspension of disbelief about age-matching between actors and roles is sometimes necessary.
The awful violence isn’t steeped in stage blood or actual flames. Many of the victims were burned or smothered to death inside a barn, and pieces of classroom furniture are used to suggest this. In a theater, this imagery is probably more effective than more ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful attempts to suggest the violence with greater verisimilitude.
The audience should be prepared for a mental workout — not only in imagining the ultimately unimaginable but also in keeping track of the many characters and their fates. Still, if you arrive at the theater reasonably well-rested, you should have no problem being caught up in this sweeping, novelistic saga.
Despite the many decades covered here, the characters are not cardboard victims and villains. The Jewish characters are hardly saintly martyrs, and two of the Polish characters are seen helping Jews escape, in different ways. Even the most publicly unrepentant killers (who are also rapists) have moments of self-doubt during the play’s three hours.
The experience is dotted with musical interludes and accompaniments, usually with the actors playing instruments they retrieve from boxes along the sidelines. While the music by Sage Lewis and McCray is suitably atmospheric, some of the lyrics are difficult to understand.
The lyrics and the spoken lines are drawn from the English version by Ryan Craig, which was the text used in the play’s premiere at the British National Theatre, prior to the Polish premiere. But McCray has also drawn from a more Americanized text used at the US premiere at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater.
The actors become an impressively cohesive ensemble. I don’t relish singling any of them out, but I can’t help but heap honors on Michael Nehring, as the one Jew who escapes to America before the war. He recites two long lists of names in the play. In the first, he recalls his family members who stayed and died. Later he enumerates his younger family members who survive in America. The length of the latter list becomes a rare moment of affectionate humor near the end of the play, while the former is delivered with Lear-like power.
Our Class is closed next weekend in order to integrate an understudy into the ensemble for a few shows, although the original actor is expected to return later. Five more performances are now scheduled, from May 24 through June 2. That’s not enough. This Class should stay in session for months or even years — and perhaps eventually move into a space that could accommodate at least a few more than 50 spectators.
Our Class, Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Avenue, Atwater. Fri May 24 and 31, 8 pm. Sat May 25, 8 pm. Sun May 26 and June 2, 3 pm. www.sonofsemele.org.
I wonder if the fictional Abram, the one Jew who escapes to America in Our Class, might have ever heard the story of Leo Frank, the Jewish pencil manufacturer who was charged with murdering an employee at his Atlanta factory in 1913 — almost exactly a century ago from now.
Frank was lynched by an anti-Semitic mob in 1915, shortly after his death sentence had been reduced to life imprisonment.
Perhaps, as with many complex musicals, seeing Parade more than once allows us to better appreciate it on different levels. I don’t recall having such an intense emotional response to Leo Frank’s fate in those two previous LA productions as I did in Fullerton last weekend — could it be, at least in part, because I had just seen Our Class as well?
In Parade, note how a somewhat sentimental song sung by the mother of the murder victim Mary Phagan suddenly, in the last line, turns venomously anti-Semitic — a pattern that also occurs at a moment near the beginning of Our Class, after the classmates honor a deceased Polish leader with a song.
At any rate, T. J. Dawson’s staging of Parade overcomes the boxy and insufficiently raked aspects of the Plummer to reach deeply inside the audience’s heart, with a cast led by a picture-perfect Jeff Skowron as Leo and a remarkably precocious Caitlin Humphreys as Lucille Frank. Her program bio reveals that she is on the verge of getting her BFA from Cal State Fullerton, with a photo that makes her look as young as she apparently is — but from the evidence on the stage and in her voice, one would assume she is at least 15 years older.
It’s a big production — 36 actors on stage, 14 of whom have Equity asterisks by their names (not including Humphreys, but that shouldn’t last long), and an orchestra that sounds big. The designers include such respected names as Tom Buderwitz and Shon Le Blanc. Yes, 3-D is approaching the big leagues.
Jason Robert Brown’s score and Alfred Uhry’s book are in excellent hands, and so is the audience. Don’t forget to examine the blow-ups in the lobby of some of the original newspaper articles about the Frank case.
Parade, Plummer Auditorium, 201 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Also Sat matinee on May 25, 2 pm. Closes May 26. www.3DTshows.com. 714-589-2770 ext 1.
In one of those articles in the lobby at Parade, the second references to the two original suspects in the murder of Mary Phagan are “Frank” and “the negro” (his name was actually Newt Lee).
And in one of the songs in Parade, the black characters get to reflect on the irony that the Frank case is attracting so much attention from the Yankees, as opposed to the scant notice taken of many cases in which black defendants were railroaded and/or lynched.
In short, perhaps the most seriously threatened people during that period of American history were the African Americans who had been freed from the shackles of slavery 50 years earlier but who had yet to escape the many tribulations of Jim Crow — or, you might say, the influence of Joe Turner (aka Joe Turney), a white man who was able to impress young black men in Tennessee into peonage during the 1890s, long after slavery had supposedly ended.
Center Theatre Group is devoting two of its stages right now to African American characters of that era. Phylicia Rashad’s revival of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is at the Mark Taper Forum, while the premiere of Marco Ramirez’s The Royale is at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.
Lynell George writes about the common themes of the two productions in an illuminating essay that is posted here and is also printed in the two programs.
Neither of the CTG plays depicts the perils of being part of the “other” group as directly and as graphically as Our Class or Parade. The CTG plays are more about the psychological journeys of the characters as they struggle to transcend the heritage of slavery.
Stylistically, however, Joe Turner’s and The Royale are almost 180 degrees apart from each other. As with many of Wilson’s plays, Joe Turner’s is largely realistic, even when the material includes references to spiritual or other not-so-realistic phenomena. The climaxes of each act are beautifully executed in Rashad’s version, but I grew impatient with some of the play’s less vital moments in a way I don’t remember from the last Joe Turner’s I saw — the Fountain Theatre production in 2006.
The Royale is almost a piece of performance art as much as a play. In depicting a fictional version of the first black heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson (here named Jay Jackson), Ramirez and director Daniel Aukin have the actors functioning as percussionists (without any actual drums) as well as actors.
The performances are compelling, but the play feels slender. Jay Jackson is seen confronting his anxieties about the racial repercussions of his successes — which he seems to fear more than defeat — but we don’t learn all that much about what actually happened to him in the wake of his victories. Perhaps Ramirez didn’t want to tread where Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope had already gone, but can anyone remember the last time The Great White Hope was professionally staged in LA? I don’t.
I would have appreciated a few more trims in Joe Turner’s and a few more turns in the tale of The Royale. But I’m staying tuned for another CTG dramatization of early 20th century black history in The Scottsboro Boys, coming soon to the Ahmanson.
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., LA. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2:30 and 8 pm, Sun 1 and 6:30 pm. No public performances May 21-24. www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. 213-628-2772.
The Royale, Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun 1 and 6:30 pm. No public performances this Tuesday or Wednesday. www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. 213-628-2772.
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