An extraordinary amount of talent has come together to make "Ghetto" at the Mark Taper Forum, but the result is a monument rather than a play.
What's being commemorated is the Vilna ghetto in Poland, a waiting pen for the Nazi "labor" camps during World War II. The Taper program tells us that its population went from 70,000 in 1941 to fewer than 20,000 in 1943. "When the war finally came to an end, only about 600 Vilna Jews remained alive." (See related story Page 8.)
How can a playwright begin to respond to this? Joshua Sobol, born in Israel four years after the war--this is his play's English-language premiere--begins with the fact that Vilna had a thriving theater, supported by the Nazis. A family might dress up to see a musical revue one night and find itself in the back of a truck the next morning.
The appearance of normality must have been one of eeriest things about the Vilna ghetto, but Sobol doesn't choose to tell his story in a realistic way. Nor do we meet one of the families described above. "Ghetto" is, rather, a waking nightmare suffered years after the event by the theater's artistic director, played with desperate vitality by Peter Elbling.
It concerns his fellow actors and the brutes whom they had to please in order not to be sent to the camps. There is horror in the memory, particularly at the end, but there's less self blame than we might have expected. It's not a confession, this nightmare. This is what happened. This is what we had to do.
"We" includes the troupe's star singer (Andrea Marcovicci) and its impudent comic, a dummy--it's safer that way (Barry Dennen.) They report to the ghetto's Jewish boss (Alan Feinstein), but are often visited by his boss, an S.S. officer who can play "Swanee" on the saxophone (Harry Groener.)
Also high up in the ghetto pecking order--and loving it--is Ron Rifkin, as a go-getting rag merchant. Rifkin is so involved with building an empire that he forgets that he's really in prison. It's the same with Feinstein, who would be deeply hurt to be called a Nazi stooge.
We get the point. The effective oppressor lets the oppressed take the controls. The human love of power will do the rest. This principle isn't applied to the theater group, however. They are seen as innocents whose work did, after all, bring some warmth and color and light to the ghetto. And they got in some strokes against the Nazis from the stage--at least the dummy did.
You can do "theater in a graveyard." You should . That's as much of a statement as I could derive from Sobol's play, which is not meant as a documentary of the ghetto, and still less as an indictment of its inhabitants' behavior.
It's as much a fantasy of Vilna as an attempt to say what really happened there, perhaps on the grounds that only fantasy can convey the strangeness of the place.
For a fantasy, though, it's an extremely heavy and talky play. And Gordon Davidson's production, although stunningly crafted, is equally heavy. Its best scenes--the only ones that really came to life at Wednesday's press opening--were the musical ones.
The shows presented by the Vilna troupe tended to be variety revues, with original songs. We hear many of them here. Even the peppy ones are touched with mourning: Their composers knew perfectly well that they were in jail. Marcovicci sings her songs with special dignity, not asking fear or favor of anybody, and there's some superb clarinet playing by Giora Feidman, a veteran klezmer artist who can, as they say, make his instrument talk.
When the actors are talking, we tend to get restless. Sometimes it's the obviousness of the line (Jack Viertel adapted Sobol's text into English) and sometimes it's the obviousness of the performance. Feinstein, for example, plays the Jewish ghetto boss all on the same level, that of a polished brute who enjoys telling people what to do. Certainly a hint of conscience wouldn't be amiss, if only for variety's sake.
Groener has more complexity as the Nazi, but the complexity involves the covert kinkiness that has come to be a cliche in playing this kind of role.
When the Haifa Municipal Theatre brought "Ghetto" to the Chicago International Theatre Festival last spring, the actor assigned to the role gave the S.S. man a genuine love of music and a bizarre need to be liked by the people he was persecuting. Brecht's distinction between great criminals and the perpetrators of great crimes would have made this a more interesting performance.
The apparatus of the production--Julie Weiss' costumes, Paulie Jenkins' lighting, Douglas Stein's set, the below-stage orchestra--is beyond reproach. Everything in "Ghetto" is perfectly calculated. Everything about it says, "This is a major theater event." Yet, in the middle of the stage, there is no fire.