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Why We Laugh could use more cabaret, less analysis

The company of Why We Laugh at a 2011 performance in Terezin, which was a Jewish ghetto in World War II.

The company of Why We Laugh at a 2011 performance in Terezin, which was a Jewish ghetto in World War II.

Amid the terrors of the Holocaust, a band of performers put on shows in the Terezin ghetto. It was only one of the artistic flourishes of the community (the Nazis allowed this as a bit of propaganda; the residents still could easily find themselves on a train to Auschwitz), but one that allows modern audiences a glimpse into that world.

Why We Laugh isn’t a direct translation of that cabaret, Laugh with Us. Instead, playwright Kira Ooblensky merges that material with a modern scholar’s quest to uncover what drove the artists to create and the audience to take part in a comedy.

The show, now playing at Open Eye, is most successful when it sticks to the moments in World War II. The Scholar does more to get in the way than illuminate. In fact, when she is ushered off stage near the end never to be seen again, it comes as a welcome relief.

The core of Why We Laugh follows a trio of the cabaret’s performers and writers. At the beginning, Elly Porges (Elsie Langer), Vitezslav Horpatzky (Ryan Lindberg), and Felix Porges (Skyler Nowinski) are scrambling because one of the other creators has been sent to Auschwitz. Apart from the shock of losing another friend, they have to figure out if they want to go on with the show with a major piece of their company missing.

They do, but it does make it a rougher ride. The cabaret itself features a mix of songs and sketches. The gist of Laugh with Us is a look at the far future, when the “bad old days of Terezin” are just long-ago memories. So we have a crew of artists at the foot of the Final Solution dreaming of their future, and a modern-day investigator (Julie Kurtz) looking to the past.

There are moments when this is successful, but other times it just adds an unnecessary layer between the audience and the most interesting characters in the room. I like a historical lecture as much as the next nerd, but in this case I would much rather witness the events instead of hearing about them.

The thing is, the cabaret sequences work. They are (intentionally) rough, but there is a sense of people using humor and humanity in the face of great evil, with sly allusions to their lives in the ghetto and an overwhelming sense that this evil will one day pass. The songs, adapted by pianist Craig Harris from the original sheet music, underscore these feelings. The company, under the direction of Hayley Finn, do a solid job of tackling material that is loaded with so much more context than gags about the butcher.

IF YOU GO:

Why We Laugh

Open Eye Figure Theater

506 E. 24th St., Minneapolis

8 p.m. Sept. 17-19, and 24-26; 2 p.m. Sep. 20, and 27

$20; $15 for seniors, students, and Fringe button holders

September 17 and 24 are pay-what-you-can performances

For tickets and more information, visit online.