Sunday, May 10, 2009

Way To Heaven


See enough Holocaust plays, and inevitably, one grows at least a little inured to the scenes of violence (sad as that may be). That's why Juan Mayorga's Way To Heaven makes for such an effective show: instead of showing the actual atrocities, it shows only the artificial atmosphere of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, at which Jews were forced to pretend that they had been happily resettled so that the Germans could quell the worldwide "rumors" of mass extermination. The audience, cast at the wide, parallel ends of the set--a narrow strip of dead leaves--sits on with the burden of hindsight, much like the Red Cross Representative (Shawn Parr), whose opening monologue establishes the tone of the show: "I needed one of them to give me a signal," he says. In other words, we watch Way to Heaven with the horror of knowledge, not the bliss of ignorance.

Mayorga's script establishes all of this with excellent pacing, and David Johnston's translation nails the pitch-black humor of the show's "acting". ("What's the difference between a pause and a silence?" "Rhythm.") All of the "facts" of the first scene's description quickly show themselves as strained falsehoods, with everything--from the child with a doll at the river to the fey, Artistotle-quoting Commandant (Francisco Reyes)--giving weight to that horrible lie. It's here that the nature of the theater lends to our understanding: at the start of Scene II, we see two lovers, He (Trae Hicks) and She (Jennifer Vega) sitting on a blanket, and cannot get past how badly they say their lines. It's not until seeing the scene for a second time that we realize this is the rehearsal of the "show" within a show--none of this is real. The Girl (Samantha Rahn) begins to speed up her lines and shiver even as she tells her doll "not to be afraid," and after She freaks out ("What do you do not to hear them [the trains]?"), she is simply replaced by an identically clad She #2 (Emily Pote).

Matthew Earnest's direction doesn't nail all of the intricacies of Mayorga's script (the ominous stage directions for a package containing the lover's "future": "The noise of a train. She drops the package. It sounds empty."), but it gets enough of them. He also innovates plenty of moments that add to the effect, such as playing carnival music during the most distorted part of the Commandant's monologue, and in the very placement of the audience itself, which mimics the atmosphere of the three-dimensional Theresienstadt "stage." Earnest is also helped by the great chemistry between the passive-agressive leads, Reyes and Mark Farr, who is coerced into playing the fake mayor, Gershom Gottfried.

The lengthy center of the show, "The Heart of Europe," focuses on the relationship between these two, and the performances should more than adequately explain to horrified audiences why Gottfried might have gone along with such an insidious plan: "Focus on one thought: 'As long as I'm here,'" reminds the Commandant, as he gently tsk-tsks Gottfried, "'I am not on that train.'" Reyes is especially remarkable, using every inch of his considerable charm to make his character all the more despicable. Just the use of the phrase "considerable charm" in a review of a Holocaust play should serve to illustrate how different Way to Heaven is, and while a few people (most notably Shawn Parr) hold the show back from getting all the way there, it's a moving production all the same.

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