Washington Jewish Week
May 9, 2007
'Either Or' powerful, provocative, chilling
by Lisa Traiger
Please remove your clothing and shoes," an amplified voice orders in Either Or, the riveting world-premiere play by Thomas Keneally that puts a face, even a soul, on an officer wearing an SS uniform. The audience gazes at four Nazi officers, calm, expressionless, staring blandly back while the instructions proceed: shoes, remove; jewelry and money, turn in at counter. Finally, one jiggles a bucket, gold teeth extracted from the dead.
And there it is, the horror of realization: We are the Jews. That director Daniel De Raey chose to stage this short scene so confrontationally makes it the play's most powerful and most frightening moment.
Either Or is a rare Holocaust drama that contains virtually no Jewish characters, save a minor appearance by one Ludwig Dewitz (John-Michael Macdonald), a Jew converted to Christianity.
But, gratefully, Theater J is like that: Artistic director Ari Roth could have approached the Holocaust by programming accounts of survivors and their children, taking the once-fashionable Anne Frank route, showing the world Jews as victims. Or, he could have looked the other way with works in the vein of Joshua Sobol's Ghetto, showing Jews more complexly as resisters and perpetrators.
Instead, Roth selected a play by Keneally, who relies on the Christian voices to hold the moral center of his work. The result: a stunningly effective look at the Holocaust, provocative and determined to instigate deep thought about morality as it and the play's central character become unhinged.
Keneally, the prolific Australian journalist and novelist, in 1982 gave the world Schindler's Ark, which first on its own, and then via the cinematic gifts of Steven Spielberg in Schindler's List, introduced the Holocaust to generations weaned after Adolf Hitler's killing machine decimated the Jews of Europe. Schindler was a complexly appealing character, a righteous gentile, credited with saving 1,100 Jewish lives. But he was, too, an imperfect man.
In Either Or, Keneally tells the fact-based story of another gentile, Kurt Gerstein, who is not nearly as much fun, and morally is much harder to categorize. Gerstein was an ardent Christian and an SS officer responsible for the introduction of Zyklon B, the fatal gas used in the gas chambers as early as 1942.
But Gerstein was a good German and a good Christian, or so he says.
Keneally's play is neither indictment nor hagiography of Gerstein because what can we make of him? This man preached the gospel fervently and believed innocently (in hindsight, surely stupidly) that Hitler's rise to power would be good for the German Christian flock. Is he a righteous gentile?
Actor Paul Morella plays Gerstein with a force so irreproachable that we go along with the man's wrongheaded conclusion: As the Third Reich rose to dominance, Gerstein thought that he could change the Nazi party from within. Morella makes this fervor believable and in confrontations with his stoic and steely father, Ludwig (a staunch Ralph Cosham), the folly of youth enwrapped among his beliefs. Gerstein's circle includes the lovely and practical Elfriede, played with aplomb by Elizabeth H. Richards, and his frail and tragic sister-in-law, Bertha, Meghan Grady as a barefoot and haunted Ophelia-like cipher. John Dow's pastor is as convincing as he is flawed, admitting at one point that though he didn't care much for Jews, they shouldn't be murdered outright.
Jim Kronzer's features marblelike columns, floor, platforms and steps, culling inspiration from Hitler's friend and chief architect, Albert Speer. Martha Mountain's lighting ably and elegantly defines and demarcates those spare spaces and moods. Misha Kachman's period costumes provide the right amount of historical reference, from imposing swastikas to polished jackboots.
Director De Raey conquers an overwhelming script in Either Or with its 40-some scenes and 21 characters (many double-cast). But more than making it theatrically viable, De Raey has made this play a bracing and provocative evening.
As a play, Either Or challenges us with tough questions that Gerstein's actions force us to ponder: Could there ever be a "good Nazi"? Who are the Nazis among us today and how should we react to their onslaught to our own hard-won liberties? Are we each uniquely responsible for the deeds of the state or the corporate industrial complex? Would we try to blow the whistle and circumvent within the system like a Gerstein? That's De Raey's message and Keneally's thrust so provocatively and chillingly upon us: We are all Jews.
Either Or by Thomas Keneally is being shown at Theater J, Washington DC Jewish Community Center, through June 3. Tickets, $15-$45, are available by calling 800-494-TIXS or www.boxofficetickets.com.
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