Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Refuge of Lies

When a play about Holocaust vengeance ends up playing anti-Semitic stereotypes, it's difficult to take seriously. In Ron Reed's Refuge of Lies, this problem is compounded by an unreliable "hero," Rudi (Richard Mawe), who was definitely once called Werner but only may have betrayed the Jewish population in Holland and who, in any case, is now a 71-year-old baptized Sunday school teacher with a slowly eroding mind. If the punishment must fit the crime, as Simon (Drew Dix) believes, then Rudi must be separated from his wife, Nettie (Lorraine Serabian), extradited to a specific location in Europe, held prisoner for a certain amount of time, and possibly be killed. (In this sick cycle, the punishment ends up being worse than the crime of collaboration.) Never mind that this is an adaptation of a true story (look up Jacob Luitjens): Reed overwrites every circumstance, thoroughly repeating himself in this exhausting two-act, and the result is far from truthful.

Aside from the sloppy, sentimental writing, Refuge of Lies also faces major problems from its cast and crew: only Michael Jarett, who creates an effortless and transporting lighting design for all the flashbacks and symbolic changes, seems in charge of his craft. The rest aren't terrible (only Libby Skala, who wildly gesticulates every line--probably because they lack such naturalism to begin with--is unwatchable), but they stand like wobbly dominos, falling over one another in the scene changes. Death of a Salesman is an excellent template, but Miller's style has gone to pot here, first used too broadly, telegraphing every move, and later used too erratically, with the action taking place in the shadows behind a scrim.

The picture Reed wants to get across is quickly painted in the first scene: Rudi and Nettie play cards amicably with their friends, Hannah (Joanne Joseph) and Conrad (Arthur Pellman). Upstage of this golden hour, in accordance with Rudi's playful story of a hallucination he had while driving, is the approaching storm: a Hassidic Jew, lurking in the shadows. Things grow more heavyhanded, as Simon rails against his prop of a niece, Rachel (Skala), explaining that in a few generations, no-one will remember the Holocaust. Just as he dehumanizes Rudi, focusing specifically on a past crime, so does Reed turn the characters into the pawns of a story. "Sure that's what he did," apologizes Rachel, "but is that all he ever did?" In this play, especially given the chessboard staging from Steve Day, it is: as Rudi, Mawe is reduced more and more to a stock character, and by the end, turned into nothing more than--literally--a shadow puppet, as two-dimensional as they come, and the epitome of a black-and-white plot.

It's impossible for material so freighted with an emotional background to be lifeless on stage, but it's the audience that does the lion's share of work in Refuge of Lies, filling in their own blanks. When, forty years from now, an archivist reads this and decides to punish the playwright for the crime of this play, let us hope that he finds it in him to be slightly more compassionate than me.

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