I shamefully admit that I walked into the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company's Holocaust-themed one-act And Then They Came for Mewith a vague sense of dread. Surrounded by a few busloads of school kids, I was prepared for a straight-down-the-middle, those-who-don't-know-history-are-doomed-to-repeat-it bit of dramatic pedagogy, and arrogantly figured it was something I didn't really need to see. Well, sometimes straight-down-the-middle, those-who-don't-know-history-are-doomed-to-repeat-it dramatic pedagogy is just the ticket. A few weeks ago I read Martin Amis's arty Holocaust-themed book Time's Arrow. As usual with his work, I was impressed by the virtuosic prose and crafty construction, but the book felt as emotionally indifferent as an elegant piece of computer code. So perhaps I unknowingly had some pent-up tears waiting to be tapped. At any rate, I found this modest production deeply affecting, and director Nancy Griggs Morgan should be commended just for getting out of the way and letting the play's powerful story tell itself.
The stage is flanked by two average-sized TVs, on which Londoner Eva Schloss and New Jerseyite Ed Silverberg, both survivors of Auschwitz, recount their childhood under Nazi terror in a barely animated but moving way. Actors Philip Callen, Delta Rae Giordano (especially effective in her bubbly portrayal of Anne Frank, with whom Silverberg had a brief flirtation), Colleen Hennen, and Randy Schmeling expand on the videotaped words of Schloss and Silverberg. And they mirror the survivors' understated approach in their reenactments of Schloss and Silverberg's efforts to evade the Nazis and survive the death camp. All of the actors glide smoothly between adult and child characters. It should be stressed that the hour-and-a-quarter-long And Then They Came for Me functions largely as an educational tool for children. The language is direct, and the ideas are simple. But it doesn't feel dumbed down; instead, it deals wisely in essentials.
Frank Theatre's premiere of Carson Kreitzer's The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer is a winding, poetic meditation on passion, morality, science, betrayal, and lots of other decidedly un-atomic concepts. Phil Kilbourne portrays Oppenheimer, the physicist who spent the latter half of WWII holed up in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where he led an enormous team of scientists in designing, building, and testing the first atomic bomb. Though dressed in a drab sack suit, Kilbourne's Oppenheimer is as elegant as the Duke of Windsor: He speaks with graceful pensiveness, effortlessly quotes John Donne and the Bhagavad Gita, and waxes charming during a cocktail-party seduction.
Under the direction of Wendy Knox, Oppenheimer's life (and the history that surrounds it) is recounted in a nonlinear and sometimes playful manner, with oversized props and often cartoonish supporting characters. The action takes place in and around a giant sandbox, which both evokes the New Mexico desert and the desolate aftermath of the scientist's atomic-energy innovations. Throughout, Oppenheimer endures the taunting of Lilith (Maria Asp), the spooky yet sexy primeval woman said in some Jewish mythology to have come before Eve. Oppenheimer's communist associations and objections to the development of the hydrogen bomb made him scholar non grata in the blacklisting '50s, and we see him constantly questioning the morality of his actions.
For Lilith, though, his quiet remorse is not enough; she doggedly torments him while skulking around the scaffolding that nearly surrounds the stage, graphically reminding him of his complicity and putting his postwar persecution in the context of same-old-same-old anti-Semitism.
The play is at its best when Oppenheimer interacts with his hissing accuser and in the scenes with Oppie's martini-tipping wife Kitty (Annie Enneking). In comparison, the scenes of straighter historical narrative seem hamfisted: Kreitzer is at her best when she unearths the scientist's life with a trowel instead of bunker buster.