A CHOICE BETWEEN EVILS
“Way to Heaven” (“Himmelweg”) by Juan Mayorga. Translated by David Johnston.
Directed by Matthew Earnest.
Encore Presentation at Teatro Circulo, 64 East 4th St., NYC.
July 30 - Aug. 23, 2009. Wed.-Sat. at 8; Sun. at 3 PM.
Tickets and information: 212-868-4444 or www.SmartTix.com.
There is little that’s new in playwright Juan Mayorga’s “Way to Heaven” for those who know Holocaust history. Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, where the play is set, was a nightmare of false hope, terror and sadistic manipulation. The camp, designed to house prominent Jewish musicians, painters, writers, and performers, was a way station to Auschwitz. In 1944, the camp was transformed into the equivalent of a living theatre, offering an environmental stage show for visitors from the Red Cross and other international human rights groups to prove that the Nazi relocation plan was humane. A band plays. Contented villagers, all wearing the yellow star of David, socialize on the village green. Visitors eat lunch with families. By the river, two boys spin a top, lovers quarrel, a girl teaches her doll to swim in the river, and the local mayor recounts with pride the long history of the village clock.
Mayorga keeps the core but changes aspects of this history in order to make the whole more real. Step by step, he shows us the players choosing between evils. A stunned new arrival (Mark Farr), called to the commandant’s office learns he is to be the paper-doll mayor and the actual stage manager of the nightmare. He adjusts. With no background in theatre, he must cast , direct the survivors, and collaborate on the script they all must memorize. Each survivor’s “pay” is the right to live for one more day. During the course of the play, one child adds lines, one teenager seems too tense, one woman asks the wrong questions. They are replaced. Then the producer – the head of Theresienstadt (Francisco Reyes) – cuts the cast down to 100, and the mayor has to make the selections.
We witness the repeated memorized scenes and the planning sessions. We learn these characters – their values, the pressures they must counter, and their relationship with each other. Mayor Gottfried is summoned for regular performance notes for failing to learn his tasks quickly enough. He is plagued by the indecency of his choices and trapped by the longing to survive. The commandant is a man of culture and learning. He treasures his collection of books, but follows the directions of Berlin without question. The “script” is his creative outlet, his masterpiece, and he relishes in its success and his intellectual prowess when he talks about Pascal, Spinoza, and Calderon to his less educated and bewildered visitors.
The third major character is the symbolic good man, who bent the rules of the Red Cross in order to see if the rumor about extermination camps are true. We meet him in the opening scene in his pajamas and unshaven, and do not realize until the end of the play that “Way to Heaven” is in part his nightmare. He replays his visit to the camp, the conversation with the commandant, the mayor, the scenes he saw. He asks why he did not find signs of abuse, why he ignored the heavy smoke and foul smell, why the other visitors did as well.
Although we see this world primarily through the eyes of the inmates, it is more a work of horrors than a tear-jerker. Director Matthew Earnest has kept the acting Brechtian rather than Method. The actors keep a small distance from their character. They don’t become them as much; they indicate them. The performance style enables us too to keep enough emotional distance to see the whole and not get caught up in our own reactions. Mayorga takes liberties with the hard facts of Theresienstadt. He adds onsite gas chambers and crematoria; he conflates and condenses – to good effect. The production is powerful, and it takes on its own life in memory. Juan Mayorga is a professor of Dramaturgy and Philosophy at the Royal School of Dramatic Art in Madrid and the author of over a dozen plays. Although his work has been well-received in Europe and Latin America, “Way to Heaven” is the playwright’s first American presentation.