The Jewish Repertory Theatre opens “Lebensraum” at Alleyway Theatre. (This article is based upon a preview performance)
Lebensraum is a witty, knowing, thoughtful and engrossing play. It is also a quirky play, as if the title doesn’t clue you into that fact.
Excuse the preamble here, but to understand the play one must also appreciate a bit of its history.
Prolific playwright Israel Horovitz turns the historic phrase “Lebensraum” (Living Space), which was Hitler’s excuse for eastward expansion, on its head. Hitler first used the term in 1933 in a speech to military leaders to garner support for his grand design to make Germany the dominant European power, to break the back of the Treaty of Versailles and to literally “make room” for his Aryan people.
We all know who paid the price for that plan: namely, Poland, Czechoslovakia, The Ukraine and millions upon millions of innocent people, all of Europe and then the whole world really. But in particular, the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust were the immediate target of Hitler’s Lebensraum.
The problem is, however, that we don’t all know that. Not by a long shot.
A whole generation of modern German youth has been shielded from their mid-20th century national history. This mass ignorance, which resulted from a mixture of shame, rationalization, hubris and, well, outright dishonesty, forms the basis of Mr. Horovitz’s play.
Director Saul Elkin explained that his attraction to the play came from hearing a radio interview in which Mr. Horovitz told the story of jogging through a Berlin park while visiting the city to open one of his plays. He was dismayed to see freshly painted swastikas on each trash bin he passed by. In a subsequent conversation with his young German translator, the playwright learned that she had never met a Jewish person, an almost universal situation in today’s Germany.
His response was to write “Lebensraum.” In Mr. Horovitz’s social fantasy, “Lebensraum” becomes a government program to re-settle six million Jews from around the world back into Germany, especially to recall those Jews who were caught in the post-WWII diaspora and their descendants. The German Chancellor’s hope is to thus restore modern Germany’s Jewish Community, make some attempt at restitution and to finally lay to rest the ghosts which haunt the post-war German psyche.
If this sounds like a formula for bitter recrimination, condemnation and the exaltation of old wounds, it isn’t. Not that such negativities fail to appear, how could one avoid them? “Lebensraum”, which was written in 1997, is set in the early 21st Century, and while it explores a multitude of sins, biases, and misunderstandings, Mr. Horovitz seems less interested in being judgmental than in fostering a dialogue about the nature of reconciliation, and it’s an important dialogue at that.
The “quirky” part comes from Mr. Horovitz’s choice to employ just three actors to perform some forty characters. Without a skillful director, and without a very talented cast, this is a play whose structure could quickly cause it to descend into chaos, gimmicks and schtick which would not only make for an awful evening of theatre, but would greatly diminish the very noble purpose at hand.
We are, however, in luck. Director Saul Elkin does not fail us, nor does his very talented cast, Tim Newell, Megan Callahan and Nathan Winkelstein. Together they populate a whole world of real people.
Necessarily, many of these people are broadly drawn, some even border on stereotype, yet the level of genuine emotion these actors invest in each of their characters is amazing, especially given that many of the characters only appear for a minute or less at any given time. The characters might just as easily have become mere caricatures had the actors not worked so hard and plumbed the depth of their craft to give each role a certain degree of humanity. They are not all hits, but there are damned few misses.
The mainstay characters are an unemployed New England dock worker and his very typical American family, who choose to take up the resettlement offer as a means to gainful employment. Their subsequent celebrity becomes the poster of “success” for the government’s program. The teenage son’s romance with a local German girl Nathan Winklestein and Megan Callahan, both give excellent performances) is the stuff of Romeo and Juliet, the couple serves to underscore the universal nature of human relations, which can transcend even the worst prejudice if given a chance. Of course, the worst prejudice eventually appears, the product of economic hard times, jealousy and, yes, antisemitism.
Along the way, literally dozens of character pop up. Tim Newell does an astounding trick, channeling two old Holocaust survivors who were resettled in post-war Australia, he breathes simultaneous life into the bickering compatriots, a sort of Yiddish Statler and Waldorf. Mr. Newell is helped by the appearance of magnificent puppets designed by master puppeteer, Michele Costa
One of the old guys tells an old joke which will surely bring down the house. Eventually the old man returns to Germany, to Berlin and to the very house where he witnessed the loss of his entire family to Nazi goons. There he confronts, in his own way, the old neighbor lady who perpetrated the crime.
It is a poignant encounter.
The very few fumbled lines and a missed stitch or two were hardly discernible and simply made for a live theatre moment. Overall, the tight cast kept the ball in the air, and mastered an astounding number of lines in a variety of dialects. Keeping it all straight is a great feat. Marvelous work all around.
The play is not only quirky for its myriad roles, it is also quirky for it’s odd pace, jarring narration and the near constant movement of scenes, set pieces and props, which matches the ever evolving, somewhat manic roster of characters. At first the rapid fire turn of events feels unsettled and distracting, but eventually the shifting tempo becomes familiar and allows us to cover huge tracts in mere moments.
The whole presentation is greatly enhanced by the director’s very clever use of the aforementioned puppets, who offer a galaxy of additional voices and personalities, everyone from curt immigration officials to the bed-ridden old neighbor are represented by Ms. Costa’s exaggerated, but very life-like mannequins. Assistant stage manager Mary Ellen Feeney, who appears on stage, handles the puppet heads so well, she is like a secret weapon, a fifth actor to help round out the whole.
Special mention too must be made of designer Ann Emo’s wonderful eye for costumes here. While the script really only calls for a mere change of hats to represent the change of characters, Ms. Emo’s more fully realized vision of each person’s clothing adds a whole new and welcome layer of personality. Not merely sartorial, the costumes help us to grasp who the character really is, an important boost while the actors make their supercharged changes.
“Lebensraum” ends with a bang, not a whimper. The conclusion is at once theatrical and dramatic but it is almost instantly recalled to the real world. The actors tell the audience the play is over, and there are no easy answers, but author beckons us to consider how and what we learn from history. The play may seem far too polemic for some, and, at some ninety minutes long without intermission, it will not be everyone’s cup of tea. And yet in a world facing Jihad and the revolutions of the Arab Spring, in a world of economic realignment, and even in the Red State/ Blue State divide, we could do worse than to consider the nature of reconciliation.
“Lebensraum” By Israel Horovitz , directed by Saul Elkin for The Jewish Repertory Theatre, at the Alleyway Theatre, May 5 through May 29, 2011.
hts by Brian Cavanagh, Sound design by Tom Makar, Costume Design by Ann Emo.