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THEATER REVIEW

When being a good citizen is just wrong

The real power of `iWitness' at the Mark Taper Forum lies in its lessons for today.

April 11, 2006|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol's "iWitness," which opened Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum, invokes the past to challenge the present to a higher standard of ethical consciousness.

Set in Hitler's Germany, the play revolves around Franz Jagerstatter, an Austrian farmer imprisoned for refusing to wear the Nazi uniform. Friends and concerned acquaintances have trouble understanding why he won't at least superficially comply out of good old-fashioned self-interest. But Franz, who's as unyielding in his position as Antigone was about burying her brother, prefers principled death to unprincipled national duty.

The production, directed by Barry Edelstein, has its virtues. But the work deserves our attention less for its theatrical power than for its moral clarity and passion. For those willing to attend Sobol's straightforward and not always dramatically compelling lesson, there's much to be gleaned in the story of an unlikely hero who understood the way good citizenship was fueling the mad machinery of history.

The facts, cribbed from the playbill, are these: Franz Jagerstatter was born out of wedlock in St. Radegund, Austria, in 1907. His natural father, Franz Bachmeier, was killed in World War I. In 1917, his mother married Herr Jagerstatter, who adopted Franz and eventually left him the farm.

After what's described by several sources as a "wild" youth, Franz settled down to family life, where he became a sexton at his local church. Vehemently opposed to Austria's unification with Germany in 1938, he was the only person in his town to have voted against it. He vowed he would never serve in the army of the Third Reich, a position that was held not out of pacifism but rather out of disgust with Hitler's violation of every civilized norm.

Franz was taken into custody in 1943 after rejecting the call for active duty. A few months later he was convicted by a military tribunal, and he was beheaded later that year. He left behind a wife and three children. Three years after his death, his ashes were spread at his home parish, which has since become a place of pilgrimage for those wanting to honor the humble Catholic peasant who became an anti-Nazi martyr.

Sobol, best known for his Holocaust drama "Ghetto," which had a brief run on Broadway in 1989, picks up the action after Franz's arrest. The prisoner (Gareth Saxe) is haggard yet serenely occupied with the menial tasks he lovingly performs. Polishing pots so that they shine like mirrors, he possesses an inner sense of freedom that defies the concrete walls surrounding him.

Franz is immune to the arguments that are marshaled against him by those wanting to save his life. Shouldn't he consider his family? As the Third Reich is nearly finished, why not just go along with things for a little while longer? What about the innocent victims of the Allies' indiscriminate bombing? Who is going to protect them?

"Only criminals are still walking free in this country," Franz says in rebuttal. "The honest people are all locked up in jail."

The play focuses more on the ethics of Franz's resistance than on the psychological forces motivating him. As a character study, it's incomplete. For one thing, Sobol underplays Franz's religious background, turning him more or less into a secular saint. In truth, he was a devout Catholic whose defiance of the state was arrived at through a deeply felt understanding of his faith -- something that his own church, concerned with its survival, rarely lived up to.

A scene in which a clergyman hears Franz's confession turns into a philosophical discussion of the elusiveness of truth. The priest, who advances a convenient doctrine of relativism, spins an understanding of current events to excuse his inaction. "Germany has moved at long last to retrieve its plundered territories," he claims, wanting to direct the conversation to the frightening nightly air raids rather than the stench of cremated bodies that hovers over towns throughout the country.

What's missing in Sobol's dramatization is an acute sense of religious betrayal. Everything feeds back to Franz's single-minded rationale for sacrificing his life: He wants to bear witness to everyday Germans' complicity with a murderous system. But the behavior is too rational -- too intellectual -- to be fully convincing.

Sobol lends his protagonist a New Age spiritual dimension -- a kind of Buddhist tranquillity inspired by the scouring of crockery. He also sketches a romantic back story that involves Franz leaving one histrionically possessive woman for another who shares his beatific equanimity.

But emotionally something is being skirted, which is why the play seemed less an insightful recasting of events than a blunt theatrical force for good.

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