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Washington Post

WWII drama hits home for Polish American actor

By Jessica Goldstein, Published: October 16

Mark Krawczyk’s character in Theater J’s “Our Class” is “effectively the leader of a massacre perpetrated on the Jews by a bunch of Polish Catholics in the play,” the actor says.

“Our Class,” which spans 80 years, follows five Catholic and five Jewish classmates in Poland and the rising wartime violence that consumes their lives. The play is based on true events that occurred in Jedwabne, Poland.

“As an actor, one of the first things you do is try to defend your character,” Krawczyk said. “I find it difficult to even vaguely defend his actions because they’re not defendable. It’s madness. I think he’s a good man who really goes drastically, drastically astray.”

Both of Krawczyk’s parents were born and raised in Poland; Krawczyk, who is Catholic, declared dual citizenship with the country a couple of years ago. During World War II, his grandmother was forced to work in a Nazi agricultural camp, a piece of family history that wasn’t revealed to Krawczyk until two years after his grandmother died, in 2005, when an envelope came in the mail from the German Forced Labor Compensation Program office.

After the war, Krawczyk’s grandmother heard that the German government was looking to compensate people who had been forced into labor camps for the Nazis. She spent much of ­Krawczyk’s life talking about how she was owed money, but he never knew what she meant.

That is, until he saw what was in this envelope: a check for $199. “And 90 some-odd cents,” he added. His father took one look at the check, dropped it and said, “It would have been better if they’d never sent it at all.” For all that she’d been through, Krawczyk’s grandmother was expecting significantly more for her suffering.

“It’s tough to talk about,” ­Krawczyk said. “A friend of mine in Poland once said to me, [when] we were talking about our family histories in the war, ‘Everyone’s got that story here.’ And that initially draws me to [this play]. My family is like many other Polish families: No one ever talks about that era. . . . Whether it be that they suffered through something, or made people suffer through something.

“I was drawn to [‘Our Class’] because, I don’t know, I always go to these Slavic projects when they come up. Because I think I’ll learn something about myself.”

Director Derek Goldman already had an impressive level of expertise when he signed on to “Our Class” — he worked as a Holocaust educator for years and wrote a play on the subject. But because “this play is so specifically about a place, ghosts, memory, in a really particular cultural context,” he said, “I just had a really strong sense that I needed to go there.”

He spent a week in Poland, where he met with playwright Tadeusz Słobodzianek at his theater in Warsaw, then traveled to Edinburgh to speak with the woman who first translated “Our Class” from Polish to English.

“This play — the way it deals with an intimate kind of brutality, neighbors killing neighbors — it was a sort of harrowing, human side of things that really was very different and shockingly new for me, of having to reckon with some of this history,” Goldman said. “It’s not the kind of play you ever feel fully prepared for. But I came back feeling much more steeped in the world of the play.”

“I think one of the things the play does that’s really, really powerful and challenging is that there’s no sense of ‘the noble hero or heroine’ at the center, navigating the evil forces,” Goldman said. “It totally defies the notion of dividing along the axes of perpetrator, bystander and victim. All of these people are all of those things.”


Theater Review: “Our Class” at Theater J
Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s epic play about ten Polish classmates explores a long-buried and tragic story from World War II.
By Sophie Gilbert
 Published October 18, 2012

Early on in Our Class, the harrowing epic by Tadeusz Slobodzianek currently playing at Theater J, young Jewish schoolgirl Dora (Laura C. Harris) receives a Valentine from her Catholic classmate, Rysiek (Harlan Wolk). He painstakingly crafts it out of pink paper, cuts it into the shape of a heart, and sprays it with perfume before stashing it in her bag (the missive’s resemblance to Elle Woods’s resume is one of the play’s few moments of levity). Only another classmate intercepts it first, and Rysiek is cruelly mocked. “I felt bad for him,” Dora tells the audience, “but what could I do?”

This refrain of “what could I have done?” is one that recurs with heartbreaking frequency during the show, which tells the story—based on true events—of ten Polish classmates growing up during the rise of Hitler, the Soviet occupation, and World War II. But the villains of the piece aren’t the mustache-twirling, almost comically menacing Nazis so prevalent in any art that deals with the period. Instead they’re the basest elements of each of the ten young characters, and the inexplicable prejudices within them that lead to acts of unspeakable horror. If blood is thicker than water, Slobodzianek seems to suggest, the bonds of childhood friendship are more like cobwebs—easy to sever, but impossible to shake off altogether.

Director Derek Goldman deserves kudos for the cast he’s assembled, because the ten players, most of whom remain onstage for much of the show, are exceptionally strong both during individual scenes and as an ensemble. The play (the English translation of which, by Ryan Craig, ran to critical acclaim at London’s National Theatre in 2009) is structured much like a school day, divided into 14 different “lessons,” or periods of history. Amid Misha Kachman’s deceptively simple set of pastel-painted floorboards, wooden chairs, and a flimsy-looking table, we see the ten friends go from childhood all the way to death. But most of the show is set during a period of history Poland would rather forget—and did, for many years, until a documentary and a book brought them back into the light. In 1941, the entire Jewish population of Jedwabne, a small town close to the border of what’s now Belarus, was massacred in a single day—not by the Nazis, as the story went for so many years, but by the town’s own Catholic residents. “We knew them,” says one character during the carnage. “They were our neighbors.”

Neither Slobodzianek nor Goldman seems to be overly interested in what motivates people to commit such awful acts, although it’s made clear that the Catholic townsfolk plundered gold, money, and property from the people they murdered. Instead, the show asks again and again how people could simply stand by powerlessly and watch. None of the characters seems to be particularly equipped with a strong moral core, with the possible exception of Abram (Sasha Olinick), the lone escapee sent to live in America before the pogrom takes place. Instead, when retribution does occur, it’s largely because the wounded are hungry for revenge, making it less than satisfying to observe.

At more than three hours, this is a play of epic proportions, though with the exception of a few final scenes it rarely drags. Goldman finds a balance between tearing at our heartstrings—as he does in harrowing scenes of rape and violence, brilliantly choreographed by Emma Jaster and fight choreographer Joe Isenberg—and making us laugh through the sheer absurdity of life and death. “Thou shalt not kill,” says Heniek (Alexander Strain), as he’s roughly drilling the catechism into Rachelka (Dana Levanosky), the town’s lone Jewish survivor, who’s forced to convert to Catholocism to survive. Bearing in mind that Heniek helped set ablaze a barn full of women and children just a few minutes earlier, it’s almost grotesquely comic.

This is a deeply moving show, and one that succeeds in painting a haggard portrait of humanity at its lowest, but Goldman also punctuates each lesson by bringing the classmates together in song. The musical interludes are profoundly beautiful but also a reminder that even the cruelest wrongdoers were innocent children once. When characters die, we see them remove their shoes before retiring to sit quietly at the back of the stage, a watchful, if powerless, presence. The use of shoes to represent souls—something that’s done equally powerfully at the Holocaust Museum in DC—is quietly humanizing, and something of an antidote to the pitiless degradation the show takes as its sad but worthy subject.

Washington Post

The benighted graduates of the harrowing ‘Our Class’

By Peter Marks, Published: October 16

“Our Class,” an obsessively detailed account of 10 intertwined Polish lives, from 1926 to 2003, presents audiences with a wrenching course of human events and an atrocity whose barbarity is profoundly impenetrable. You’re compelled by playwright Tadeusz Slobodzianek to wonder why followers of one faith would turn with primal bloodthirstiness on those of another. And not faceless practitioners of that other religion, but the children who sat beside them in elementary school.

Theater J plunges us into the stories of these 10 fictional characters in a three-hour production that is by turns fascinating, exasperating, exhausting, startling and, at all times, unsparing. One of the most astonishing facets of Slobodzianek’s 2007 play, translated by dramatist Ryan Craig, is its relentless cataloguing of doom, of the sorry arcs of virtually all of the lives it chronicles. “Cursed” is a word that comes to mind, though it’s the singularly hideous curse that half of the former schoolmates pronounce on the others that gives “Our Class” its shape as a shaming national tragedy.

Five of Slobodzianek’s characters are Catholic and five are Jewish. Fusing devices reminiscent of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” and, in a different way, Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None,” the playwright withdraws from the dramatic action each of the former classmates at the point of their violent or natural deaths, but leaves them onstage, as barefoot ghosts who commingle in the spectral world with all the gentleness and grace that eluded their coexistence in ours.

It’s an important play, exhibiting the urgent assets of drama that force its way into the conscience — and some of the deficits, too. Slobodzianek’s desire for personal testimony with all the documentary embroidery of an encyclopedia entry makes “Our Class” a sometimes-fatiguing exercise. The play is divided into 14 “lessons,” and by the time “Lesson XI” or “XII” flashes on the blackboard of designer Misha Kachman’s elegantly utilitarian schoolroom set, you are transported at moments back to the days of 11th-grade World History clock-watching.

The decision, too, by director Derek Goldman to require all 10 cast members to speak with Polish accents is a confounding misstep. If actors were skilled dialecticians (or relatives of Meryl Streep), the artifice might be excusable. (Although the logic of characters speaking to one another in their native tongue with a foreign accent has always escaped me.) Here, the attempt to “sound” Polish has an effect opposite to what is intended: It’s corrosive to authenticity.

It reflects, though, an earnest desire by Goldman and his admirable actors — whose verve for telling this story is one of its attractive attributes — to try to do justice to a play that shifts so disturbingly our definition of community. And for those prepared to listen closely, “Our Class” will prove meaningful. The work is based on “Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland,” a 2001 book by Jan Gross, a Polish American history professor at Princeton. He asserted that 1,600 Jews of Jedwabne were not burned to death in a barn in 1941 by the Nazis as previously believed, but by their fellow Poles.

The book’s publication convulsed Poland and inflamed debate over his claims and the apparently greater degree to which Poles were complicit in Jewish suffering during World II. Adam Michnik, erstwhile Polish dissident and adviser to Lech Walesa, wrote in the New York Times in 2001 that the controversy made it seem “as if the whole society was suddenly forced to carry the weight of this terrible 60-year-old crime, as if all Poles were made to admit their guilt collectively and ask for forgiveness.”

“Our Class” portrays Polish guilt as a festering boil in desperate need of lancing. If that’s an unpleasant image, well, ­Slobodzianek has no desire to shield us from events that curdle the blood. Starting in their tender years as innocents singing hymns and proclaiming for an unseen teacher their when-I-grow-up dreams, the characters embark on 10 interwoven, lifelong self-narrations. Soon enough the fissures in their childhood solidarity — encouraged by the upheaval of successive Soviet and Nazi invasions — begin to show, and they find themselves in an ever-more hostile, divided village of “Poles” and “Jews.”

Only scholarly Abram (Sasha Olinick) avoids the tumult to come: He’s sent by his family to New York, and remains a presence through his optimistic letters. (In “Our Class” terms, the only escape from misery is early emigration.) For the nine who remain, the stories of savagery and persecution, of inflicting pain and succumbing to it, are recounted with remarkable restraint, as if each of them is observing his or her own thoughts and reflexes as they are happening. The explosive outcomes of hatreds seeming to emerge from nowhere, culminating in a heartbreakingly precise narration by Dora (Laura C. Harris) as she’s herded into the barn with hundreds of other Jews, are not easy to sit through.

Some reductive characterizing is perhaps inevitable, even at this evening’s luxurious length: On the angelic end of the spectrum is the harbinger-victim Jakub Katz (Ashley Ivey), beaten to death by his former classmates with rotting fence posts; at the other extreme is the sinister Zygmunt (Mark Krawczyk), a protean thug who changes stripes with each shift in the prewar, wartime and postwar power structures, from nationalism to Communism to Naziism and back again.

More intriguing are the figures caught in the middle, such as the dim Wladek (Joshua Morgan), a Pole with no consistent agenda, other than survival; Rachelka (Dana Levanovsky), a Jew who melts by luck and adaptive instinct into a Christian household; and Zocha (Heather Haney), a Christian whose love for a rakish Jewish classmate (Tim Getman) compels her to an act of courage for which she ultimately feels no pride. The cast is rounded out by Alexander Strain, as a bigoted hypocrite who finds haven as a priest, and Harlan Work, playing a Polish schoolboy who graduates to the ghastly career of henchman.

As “Our Class” is the purest kind of ensemble piece, singling out a performance or two feels like a violation. (I remain convinced that in ordinary accents, the performances would be even more potent.) The work here of lighting designer Daniel MacLean Wagner is worth special mention, however, as are contributions by consulting musicologist Bret Werb and composer Eric Shimelonis. Even after civility and humanity disappear, music, and the bracing voices of “Our Class,” rise up as one to reaffirm that 10 tormented souls sprang from the same soil.

Washington City Paper

Our Class By Tadeusz Słobodzianek;
Translated by Ryan Craig Directed by Derek Goldman; At Theater J to Nov. 4   
In a Polish town in the decades leading up to World War II, the best of humanity and the worst

By Ian Buckwalter • October 19, 2012
Polish Opposites: Our Class charts the lives of one town’s Catholics and Jews.

There’s no shortage of questions when the lights come up at the end of Theater J’s production of Tadeusz Słobodzianek’s Our Class. How could these people, friends since childhood, be so cruel to one another? How could we possibly retain the capacity to forgive despite that cruelty? Where did I put my tissues, and when did it get so blurry in here?

Once you’ve dried your eyes and wandered out into the autumn air, another question arises: How on earth did they pull that off? Our Class is a three-hour epic that spans 80 years in the lives of 10 individuals from the Polish town of Jedwabne—five Jewish, five Catholic—and the horrific events during World War II that both bind their fates and tear them apart.

There is no aging makeup, nor any costume changes, and the set—stark and minimal with black brick, a schoolroom chalkboard, and a couple of patches of cobblestone amid the floorboards—is unchanging. The play flagrantly breaks a standard dramatic rule, both showing and telling, often via direct address. None of this should work.

Yet director Derek Goldman and his ensemble cast fit into those 180 minutes 10 remarkably rich and detailed lifetimes. It’s up to viewers to fill in the moments when the practical restrictions of theater only allow for evocative sketches. But the production makes those imaginative leaps easy.

The innocence of the group as children, singing and dancing in class, gives way to young starry-eyed love, sometimes even crossing over the religious differences between them before they really know that those are boundaries not meant to be crossed. Then the fire and passion of young adulthood, the sour regret of middle age, and eventually the bent backs of old age. The exceptional cast needs only their voices and bodies to show the passage of time.

Things begin idyllically in that classroom, but the German and Soviet occupations remind everyone of their differences. Each regime appears to favor one group or another, when in reality they’re just crushing everything in their path.

Once some destructive impulses have been sparked, many in the group turn on one another, and the play turns to shockingly frank depictions of rape and murder, before getting to the historical massacre that forms the work’s devastating centerpiece: the entirety of the town’s Jewish population burned in a barn, not by the Nazis, but by the Poles themselves.

The second act deals with the aftermath of that event, before eventually speeding through much of the latter half of the century. Repeated motifs, like the letters from Abram (Sasha Olinick)—the one classmate to leave Poland for America before the war—to the rest of the group, or the way the characters, as they die, carefully remove their shoes and socks, and take a seat at the back of the stage for the rest of the play, help keep the Our Class from feeling like it’s wandering.

Indeed, the show maintains a remarkably breathless focus and intensity from start to finish. Death comes at different stages of life for each of these characters, yet it always seems either too soon, or after the last of their years have been wasted. Słobodzianek’s work humanizes even the worst members of this group, and the most noble get their petty moments, too. We are all, to varying degrees, a mess. That’s one possible answer to the most important question Our Class could pose, the one its characters too often fail to consider: What is it that unites us rather than divides us?

MD Theatre Guide

Theatre Review: ‘Our Class’ at Theater J
October 18, 2012 By James Miller

Theater J’s production of Our Class by Tadeusz Słobodzianek opened on Monday to a packed and appreciative house, including special guest Ryszard Schnepf, the Polish Ambassador to the United States.  His remarks at the start of the show, which spans eighty troubled years of Polish history, placed the production in a larger, ongoing historical context of remembrance and responsibility.

This show deserves such weight. Director Derek Goldman has assembled what is surely one of the best ensembles of the year, and the play stands as a heartbreaking testament to both the powers and failures of the human spirit.

Our Class is based on Jan Gross’ book Neighbors and follows the lives of ten classmates—half Jewish, half Catholic—from the Russian occupation, to the Nazi invasion, the Holocaust, and on through the collapse of the Soviet Union. Słobodzianek juxtaposes the experience of Abram (Sasha Olinick), a surviving emigrant in America, with the chilling story of those who stayed behind. The class’ teacher is glaringly absent from the story, and as the play progresses, their collective friendship dissolves into an individual struggle for dominance and survival.

The scenes (or “lessons” as they are called) are interspersed with high-energy, multilingual, and often humorous choreography and songs, using nothing but chairs and the empty room (perhaps a nod to “Café Müller” and the late Pina Bausch). Even from the back row, the fight choreography is a bit off, and the violence is actually more disturbing when the actors drop the realist conventions—that is, when they are obviously not connecting with their victims, or remain fully clothed during scenes of rape.

    …a heartbreaking testament to both the powers and failures of the human spirit.

The ensemble is uniformly excellent, and each of their stories is given roughly equal weight. Thus, it is difficult to list all of their strengths, but Dora (Laura Harris) and Zygmunt (Mark Krawczyk) stand out as opposing pillars of compassion and deceit. The cast executes each scene with gripping physical precision—the most striking example being the symbolic removal of shoes. The final scenes of the play slow down by a degree, but are lifted back up by Abram’s sprawling and hopeful enumeration of his offspring.

Sasha Olinick, Ashley Ivey, Laura C. Harris, Harlan Work. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The cast moves with practiced efficiency around the stoic but textured set (Misha Kachman), while the subtle use of footlights (Daniel Wagner) casts ominous shadows across the stage. The sound design (James Garver) has an aged quality, as if coming through an antique radio. Lastly, as the show progresses, the vocal arrangements (Eric Shimelonis) become more fragmented and complex, mirroring the discord betwixt the classmates and their society as a whole.

This play demonstrates the power of live theatre to elicit a visceral and immediate response that is rarely found in other mediums.  To be sure, it is a difficult production to watch, but that is, perhaps, the whole point. These things happened, and watch we must.

Broadway World Reviews

Theater J's OUR CLASS Is Compelling, Insightful
Wednesday, October 17, 2012; 12:10 PM - by Jennifer Perry

In graduate school, I read Jan Gross’ award-winning book, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland for one of my European history classes.  I remember being struck by Gross’ ability to weave together a rigorous socio-political examination of an unspeakable massacre that unfolded in that non-descript town on July 10, 1941, including how it happened and why, with what was essentially a compelling character-driven narrative.  It was the best of academic research and story-telling.  Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s Our Class, an epic play based on Gross’ work, also examines the ‘before and after’ of Jedwabne massacre, but with a slightly different lens; it is compelling and emotional to its core.

Now in production at Theater J (with an English version by Ryan Craig), Our Class follows a group of ten Jewish and Catholic classmates in the small town of Jedwabne, Poland over an 80-year period beginning in the 1920s.  As Soviet and German forces occupy the country in the late 1930s, their life stories become less defined by common friendships and dreams of what they want to be when they grow up and more defined by their own ethnic and religious identities.  When the Jewish population of the town increasingly becomes a target of political aggression, the classmates arrive at a crossroads.  One of the Jewish students leaves for America, others become victims of religious and ethnically-driven violence (including acts perpetrated by their own classmates) in the town, and others still form bonds with their Catholic classmates and, in the end, survive the mass killings and violence.   One particular incident where 1600 Jews are burned to death in a barn at the hands of their own neighbors proves to be a defining life event for many of the classmates- some of which are directly involved either as victims or perpetrators.   Originally blamed on Nazi forces, this massacre continues to haunt the living for the rest of their lives and influences their life paths.

Under the direction of Derek Goldman, a ten-member cast of local actors uniformly shines as the classmates and provide Washington audiences with a master class in compelling dramatic acting.  Slobodzianek/Craig have provided these actors three-dimensional, fully-fleshed out, characters to portray and they certainly rise to the occasion.  Each character arc is evident and although the narrative is in and of itself dramatic and heart wrenching, the acting is virtually never overwrought or cartoonish.  The relationships between the characters are also quite believable and realistic.

There are no weak links in the cast, or even standouts - a good thing in this kind of play. Tim Gettman (Menachem), Heather Haney (Zocha), Laura C. Harris (Dora), Alexander Strain (Heniek), Mark Krawczyk (Zygmunt), Dana Levanovsky (Rachelka/Marianna), Joshua Morgan (Wladek), Sasha Olinick (Abram), Ashley Ivey (Jakub Katz), and Harlan Work (Rysiek) all carry the show equally.  I will resist the temptation to describe each of their contributions (or else this review will be longer than James Joyce’s Ulysses), but I do want to mention several highlights.

Although Gettman can tread the line between being cartoonish and realistically awkward at times, he excels equally with Menachem’s comedic and dramatic moments.  His humor in some of the initial scenes juxtaposes nicely with his intense acting later on- particularly where Menachem interrogates his former classmates who perpetrated violence against his wife, Dora, and other Jews in the town.  Haney, likewise, proves she is exquisitely capable of portraying a girl who never wanted to be a hero, but did what she could to save several of her classmates.   Zocha’s realization near the end of her life of how her actions in the 1940s shaped who she became and how she’s viewed by others, offers one of the most compelling moments in the play thanks to Haney’s fine acting.

Harris and Ivey have, perhaps, the most dramatically intense moments as Dora and Jakub, respectively, endure unspeakable atrocities at the hands of their very own classmates.  Their realistic touches to these difficult-to-watch scenes highlight their characters’ emotional and physical pain in a touching and memorable way.

Levanovsky and Morgan take great care to portray Rachelka/Marianna and Wladek’s unlikely relationship with humor and despair.  Their best moments come as they play off one another at the seemingly best and worst of times as their lives take directions they never dreamed.   Both are masters at using their physical movements, including facial expressions, to convey more than is possible with just words.

Strain and Krawczyk’s layered portrayals of Heniek and Zygmunt, respectively, are crucial to making their characters’ transformations matter in the end.  As adults, far removed from the atrocities of the past, they finally acknowledge their roles in the violence.  These brief, but climatic moments give great insight into the human condition in all of its complexity – nothing is black or white.  As Rysiek, Work has to come to terms with his role in the massacre in a different way, but he too brings humanity to his character as he meets his bitter end in an act of violence.

Finally, Olinick exudes charm, humor, and charisma as Abram, the classmate who flees the instability in Poland with his family early on in the play.  His endearing qualities make the love that he expresses to his former classmates in his letters seem truly heartfelt. Although he is mostly physically removed from his classmates, he makes a great effort to establish that the emotional bonds still exist and that, despite the chaos surrounding all of them, they are still human.

The exemplary acting is backed by minimal production values.  Director Derek Goldman was wise to ensure that these elements do not detract from the telling of the story and exploring the relationships between characters.  The choice to set the entire play in a bare-bones classroom, designed by Misha Kachman, is a wise one.  All of the classmates formed their initial bonds there and remained intertwined even after school ended.  Yet, all actions (and feelings about those actions) harken back in some way to those early days together.  A series of songs and choreography (Emma Crane Jaster) well-performed by the cast also highlight these bonds. Other production elements reinforce the time, place, and focus of the story. Ivania Stack’s costumes are period appropriate and give some inkling as to each character’s socio-economic and/or ethnic/religious status.  Daniel MacLean Wagner’s lighting design, James Bigbee Garver’s sound design, and Eric Shimelonis’ compositions highlight the mood of each scene and further establish context.

Our Class is certainly a difficult piece of theatre, but those who take the time to see this epic narrative will likely appreciate not only the artistic merits, but also the lessons that can still be learned from the story.  Although the play's construction does not leave much for the audience’s imagination or allow much room for deeper explorations of the how/why of what occurred, the story does speak for itself.  In the end, that’s certainly satisfying.

Like Gross’ book, the play reminds us of how religious and ethnic identities can be used to rationalize and drive socio-political action both at the individual and group level.  In turn, individual and collective human behavior within the context of a particular social-political situation also further shapes those identities.   Historical narratives and collective memories were powerful forces in the 1920s-1940s in Poland and they still are today - in every country in every part of our world.  Theater J’s timely and powerful production of Our Classis a good reminder of this and, at the same time, offers some of the best acting one can witness in Washington, DC.

Curtain Up

A CurtainUp DC Review
Our Class

By Susan Davidson

“This is what is most important, that the audience is forced to confront the most difficult question: what might I have done in this situation?” — Playwright Tadeusz Slobodzianek

“What could any of us have done?”— Abram, a Jew who emigrated from Poland to the United States in 1937.

Confronting the truth in the aftermath of prejudice, politics and war is never easy but the situations confronted by the Polish people, both Catholics and Jews, in the 20th century are particularly complex and appalling. Tadeusz S?obodzianek’s play Our Class now at Washington’s Theater J, has fictionalized characters but the historical events it portrays are true. They are based on Jan Gross’s book Neighbors, about a massacre that took place in July, 1941, in Jedwabne, a small town in Poland, whose population numbered 1,600.

Our Class follows five Poles and five Jews (interestingly the Jews are never referred to as Polish Jews or Jewish Poles) from their carefree childhood until death. What happened to them between 1926 and 2003 is told in scenes called Lessons, numbered on a blackboard. While each character has a story to tell, their veracity differs. Some members of the class diligently trim their personal history to suit the prevailing politics of the time.

The spectre of anti-Semitism was always present in Poland but the children, singing and dancing in school to charming and uplifting Polish folk songs, seemed carefree. Their ambitions were, for the most part, modest – to be a tractor driver, a butcher -- although one of the girls dreamt of being a movie star. Because fate made them live in a country that was invaded by the Soviets, the Germans and then again the Soviets, their lives turned into schemes of survival. Religion was a powerful motivator but so was money.

Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the country’s history is not that it put a spin on its past. At first we are led to believe that the massacre at Jedwabne where prisoners held in a barn were burned to death was led by Nazis. It was not. The massacre was conducted by the people of the town. Catholics and Jews, opposing one another, knew their enemies well.

Religion takes a beating as the duplicity and lack of morality enfolds through the character of Heniek, played byAlexander Strain in a strong performance, who works his way up the Catholic hierarchy. The more egregious characters who have survived the political shuffles, suffer great personal losses later in life. Who is the most depraved? Possibly the egregious Zygmunt, played with vicious zeal by Mark Krawczyk, while Menachem, Tim Getman, is nothing more than a womanizer and a crook.
The most sympathetic character, Jakub Katz, a Jew, is given a very gentle and endearing performance by Ashley Ivey. He is the first of the group to be murdered. Abram, played with convincing rabbinical and cantorial flourish by Sasha Olinick, is able to practice his faith and procreate many more Jews, by emigrating from Poland to the U.S. in 1937. As the mismatched Jewish/Catholic couple, Joshua Morgan as Wladek and Dana Levanovsky as Rachelka/Marianna, a formidable survivor who converted to Christianity, provide a sweetness wrapped in irony.

Director Derek Goldman has corralled his cast into a superb example of ensemble acting. While each character is distinct, they work together well, as they sourt out the pieces of a difficult but engaging puzzle. In a heart-breaking yet mesmerizing performance, Dana Levanosky as Rachelka/Marianna, is fortunate to have the best lines but what she does with them is splendid. Overcome by weltschmerz, her sense of irony prevails and her portrayal of the aging survivor seems very authentic.

At the beginning of the first act, the children in Our Class dance and move in a carefree manner ably choreographed by Emma Crane Jaster. Heather Haney as Zocha gives a convincing interpretation of a horse. In a different kind of movement, Laura C. Harris’s cradling of her baby is particularly effective. As the piece progresses, folk dancing is replaced by tough physical altercations, choreographed with speed and authenticity by Joe Isenberg. Harlan Work, who looks like a Pole, as Rysiek, portrays violence very effectively. Misha Kachman’s set – painted brick walls and simple chairs evoke the simplicity of a pre-war mittel European village. It is given just the right amount of moodiness by lighting designer Daniel MacLean Wagner.

Our Class is thought-provoking theatre, exceptionally well directed and performed, with a resonance that continues long after the lights go down. What might I have done in the circumstances members of Our Class faced? I’m thinking and that’s the point.

DC Theatre Scene

Our Class
October 22, 2012 By Jeffrey Walker

Illuminating a dark chapter in Poland’s history, Our Class at Theater J features a strong acting ensemble and assured direction by Derek Goldman.

On July 10, 1941, nearly all the Jews in the town of Jedwabne were placed in a barn for the purpose of awaiting transport to a ghetto. Once they were crammed inside, the barn was doused with kerosene and torched.

The 1,600 men, women and children were not rounded up for a pogrom by uniformed Nazis.

They were murdered by the other townspeople – their neighbors.

Our Class, now onstage at Theater J through November 4, shines light on this dark moment from Poland’s past. Boasting a strong acting ensemble, the play tackles a devastating story of community, atrocity and the aftermath of guilt and redemption. Ryan Craig’s English version of this play by Polish playwright Tadeusz Slobodzianek is both personal and epic.

Director Derek Goldman skillfully strips the play down to the essentials of storytelling: an illuminated stage, chairs, a table. Goldman offers his actors a chance to paint in bold colors on a stark canvas and they do so with imaginative abandon, even as their journey leads to atrocity. Goldman’s theatrical touch is heightened by the work of choreographer Emma Crane Jaster, providing a series of dances which show the social and ritualistic aspects of community which break down during the course of the play.

We are introduced to the ten member school class – three girls, seven boys – comprised of both Jews and non-Jews. Spanning more than 70 years, the members of the class go through the natural progression of growing up, becoming adults and finding their place in the difficult world.

Progress is not always a good thing. Since Poland was the stomping ground of the Soviets and then the Nazi occupation, the village and its inhabitants learn ways to cope and survive in a world they cannot control. At first the Jews seemed to have the upper hand, welcoming the Soviets to the town.

Once the Nazis arrive, the proverbial time-bomb is set, as the non-Jewish villagers work with the Germans to gain the upper hand. The Jewish residents feel oppression, fear, and degradation. Men are beaten in the street, and some of the women are savagely raped – by other members of their own class. The first half of the play builds to the devastating finale when the Jews are boarded up in the barn, while half the town is part of the mass murder – either passively or actively.

In the play’s second half, we learn about who survived, for good or ill. Times passes, but guilt and remorse do not. Some characters take revenge, some try to forget, while others fight for dignity and justice for the victims.

Our Class questions our assumptions about roles such as perpetrator, victim and bystander. As a painting of a community facing both the beauty and ugliness of humanity, there is no clear black and white; just shades of gray in which the characters get swept up.

The most remarkable aspect of Theater J’s production is the superb acting company director Derek Goldman has assembled. They work as a finely tuned ensemble, creating individual portraits that work seamlessly as a whole.

Ashley Ivey is sensitive Jakub Katz, who becomes the first victim of the German-fueled tensions. After being beaten to death by his own friends, Jakub, and the other casualties remain on stage throughout the entire play.  As a character passes on, they remove their shoes and socks and move their school chair to the back of the stage – an effective and moving theatrical convention.

The savage rape of Dora (Laura C. Harris) by three of her classmates and German collaborators also makes an indelible impression. Rysiek (Harlan Work), Zygmunt (Mark Krawczyk) and Heniek (Alexander Strain), her attackers, come as close to antagonists as it gets in Our Class.

Heather Haney is Zocha, who hides Menachem from the pogrom and his mistress. Joshua Morgan, as non-Jew Wladek, ends up marrying Rachelka – Dana Levanosky – to save her from being sent away or killed. But Rachelka has to become baptized into the Christian faith.

The tenth class member is Abram, played by Sasha Olinick. Intelligent and effusive, Abram moves to America but keeps in touch with his friends through a series of letters. He later discovers the truth about his hometown and classmates and works for justice for the victims.

Misha Kachman’s simple, school room set, with lighting design by Daniel MacLean Wagner, allows the storytelling to take flight. Costume designer Ivania Stack keeps the wardrobe simple. Working in tandem with the other elements, James Bigbee Garver’s sound design and Eric Shimelonis’s musical score add punctuation and color to the production.

In his director’s notes, Derek Goldman said the main question of Our Class is “What could any of us have done?” In a Polish village, many years ago, that question still lingers. And now it lingers on a bare stage at Theater J, asking a new generation the same question.

Washington Jewish Week

A dark day
'Our Class' recalls horrific massacre

by Lisa Traiger
Arts Correspondent

In the territory of the so-called blood lands - that unwelcoming region of Europe between 1933 and 1945 that included Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and the Baltic states - truth and history have been malleable. One person's life experience becomes another's fiction. One man's dream, another's nightmare. One woman's act of conscience, another's moral turpitude.

That history itself can raise hackles and ignite controversy is the essence of Polish playwright Tadeusz Slobodzianek's devastating work Our Class, produced by Theater J and on stage at the Washington, DC Jewish Community Center through Nov. 4. That Slobodzianek deals with history is undisputed. But that history - the account of what happened on June 24, 1941, in the small Polish town of Jedwabne - has shaken to the core long-held Polish beliefs about the role its people played in the Holocaust.

The dark history of that day in June has been laid bare in recent years, first by historian Jan Gross who wrote an account in his 2001 book Neighbors, and more recently by Slobodzianek, who dramatized the horrific event and the years preceding and following it, when, as Princeton University history professor Gross succinctly put it, "half of the population of a small East European town murdered the other half - some 1,600 men, women and children." That day the Polish citizens of Jedwabne rounded up their Jewish neighbors, slaughtered many and burned them all - many still alive - in a barn.

For decades the act was officially blamed on the invading Nazi army. A monument erected in the 1960s that laid the blame on the Gestapo and Nazis, was finally modified in 2001. It remains controversial, even today, for it lays no blame for the massacre.

Director Derek Goldman helms a visceral production of Slobodzianek's expansive, episodic script - its English version by Ryan Craig. The play follows 10 Polish school children - five Jewish, five Catholic - from their grammar school days through their twilight years. The powerful ensemble cast is introduced as hopeful first-graders: "I want to be a fireman" one says. "I want to be a doctor" the studious girl adds. Another wants to be a teacher. Simple aspirations of small-town children. We see playground shenanigans - teasing, boy-girl games, schoolyard songs and chants, all performed with youthful vigor.

As the "lessons" - the playwright's scenic vignettes - we get to know the characters more closely. There's Heniek, the obsequious altar boy (Alexander Strain) and rough-hewn Wladek, the simple farmer's son (Joshua Morgan); studious yarmulke-wearing Abram (Sasha Olinick), and his buddy, Zionist bund-member Jakub Katz (Ashley Ivey). Rachelka is the pretty daughter of the Jewish mill owner (Dana Levanovsky) and blonde Zocha, the daughter of a seamstress (Heather Haney). We see these youths grow up, their lives continually intertwined with male-female relationships, friendships, and disagreements.

Within a little more than a decade, politics intrude. The Soviets enter Poland, which some of the Jews view with relief. But the political tide turns, and the Germans return. These ever-changing allegiances tear at the worn fabric that had held these classmates together. We begin to see the ugly results of anti-Semitism as classmate turns against classmate, neighbor against neighbor.

Under Goldman's direction, with assistance from fight choreographer Joe Isenberg, a series of brutal beatings and rapes by a gang of the Polish boys ends in grisly and tragic results. That power and hatred rear up with unbridled physical force, leaving little to the imagination. By the time Slobodzianek leads us to the gruesome massacre in the barn, we're both overwhelmed and numbed by the slow but steady buildup of allegiances and violence that takes us from seemingly simple schoolyard teasing to unspeakable brutality.

Interspersed throughout are boldly sung Polish songs, given full voice by the 10-member cast, sometimes chanted with gusto and illustrated by mimetic gestures, like tableau vivant. Sounding like bucolic paeans to an idealized village life that likely never existed, they serve to ameliorate the edgy, disconcerting dread that the accretion of violence brings. While act two serves much like a denouement, following the lives (and attendant deaths) of these classmates beyond the climatic and horrific pogrom, it proves nearly as riveting in illuminating deep moral conundrums the play raises. The single off-note in an excellent ensemble cast is Olinick's overly bombastic role as the boy-turned-American-rabbi. His loud voice and exaggerated demeanor made light of his role as a survivor and progenitor of Jewish generations.

Playwright Slobodzianek spares no one. When young Abram emigrates to America, and continues his connection through letters to his former school chums, late in life another classmate turns on him, making the accusation that American Jews sat idly by as the Holocaust decimated Europe's Jews. And when working-class Vladek saves Rachelka from the pogrom by converting her and forcing her into a loveless marriage, it's less an act of bravery than of selfish desperation.

As classmates die, they remain on stage-designer Misha Kachman's mostly spare wood-planked stage: ghosts witnessing the unraveling of their friends' lives. Past and present intermingle, life and death stand side by side, each haunting the other, as Holocaust history continues to haunt Europe, even today. In Slobodzianek's Our Class, no one lives free from guilt, all classmates carry their own secrets, hatreds, animosities, prejudices with them. As the play's most tragic character, Rachelka, the converted Jew trapped in the loveless marriage, observed: "The things you learn as a child, they stay with you forever."

In this taut and chilling production, the lessons Our Class teaches are compelling ones about history and veracity, guilt and innocence, heroism and cowardice. It's an important play, one well worth the three-hour investment. Memories of the horrors, of those terrible years wrought by the political turmoil of the blood lands, will stay with you. The lessons remain hard to erase.

Washington Examiner

Setting a horrible record straight
October 20, 2012 | 8:00 pm

Barbara Mackay
Special to The Washington Examiner
The Washington Examiner

Theater J's current "Our Class," by Polish playwright Tadeusz Slobodzianek, is a riveting analysis of identity as it relates to Poland after the first quarter of the 20th century. It is a grueling, honest look at the national, ethnic and religious identity of a small Polish town.

Though that town is never named, it is supposed to be Jedwabne, where an infamous massacre occurred in 1941. In 2000, Jan Gross published a book about that massacre titled "Neighbors." It's this book on which "Our Class" is based.

The play begins in 1926 with a class of 10 young Polish students, five of them Jewish, five Catholic. The children play and sing together, defining themselves by their fathers' occupations and by their dreams. It's not until a scene where the Jewish students are made to sit at the back of the class, while the Catholic students pray in the front, that tensions develop.

Those tensions escalate when the Soviet army arrives in 1939 and escalate again in 1941, when the German army arrives. Then the play narrates the events of July 10 that year, when 1,600 of Jedwabne's Jewish inhabitants were herded into a barn, which was doused with kerosene, then ignited.

Until 2001, the massacre was blamed on foreign occupations, specifically the Nazis. But in "Our Class" it is clearly the neighbors of the Jews who are responsible.

"Our Class" benefits from the simplicity of Misha Kachman's set, which uses just 10 wooden chairs and a table to represent the schoolroom and various homes.

Under Derek Goldman's direction, "Our Class" is a compelling dissection of trust, inclusion, honesty and responsibility. Goldman's extraordinarily talented ensemble works smoothly, turning Slobodzianek's unique characters into immensely credible human beings.

Laura Harris is particularly effective as one of the murdered women. Joshua Morgan is touching as the simple Wladek. Sasha Olinick is outstanding as Abram, whose recitation of his family's names at the end of this play about despair signals hope, as Abram identifies a new family in America, which comforts him for the fact that his first family in Poland was destroyed by hatred.

Balitmore Post Examiner

Theater J’s ‘Our Class’ not for the faint of heart
By Megan Kuhn · October 26, 2012 ·

“Our Class” is an unsettling but worthwhile theatrical experience. The play at Theater J  in Washington, D.C., is based on a true story.

Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s play follows the tumultuous lives of 10 Polish classmate as their homeland is invaded by the Soviets, then Germans and then the Soviets again. Five students are Jewish, five are Catholic. Regardless of religious affiliation, their young lives are marred by tragedy: abuse—physical, verbal and psychological—rape and murder. The only student to escape physical harm is Abram (Sasha Olinick), who emigrates to the U.S. Abram remains in contact with his classmates through occasional letters.

“Our Class” is based on the 2007 book “Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland”  by Princeton history professor Jan Gross. Gross reveals that 1,600 Jewish Jedwabne residents burned to death in a barn in July 1941, and that fellow Poles committed the atrocity, not Nazis as previously believed.

Broken into 14 lessons, the three-hour play begins with charming, relatable classroom vignettes: students talking about what they want to be when they grow up, giggling over love notes. There are singsong playground games and knuckleheaded roughhousing.

But prejudiced remarks and violence seep into the play, the tension building until there is no turning back from shocking acts of cruelty. While some of the Catholic students risk their lives to save their Jewish classmates, most commit acts of violence against their former friends, or watch them suffer from the sidelines.

As Artistic Director Ari Roth notes in the program, the play is all the more upsetting because it involves “intimates who turn against each other.”

On a dark, sparse set, the actors do a fantastic job of startling and scaring the audience with aggressive motions and movements. This play is not for the faint of heart. Laura C. Harris (Dora) acts out a terrifying death scene during the barn burning.

There are brief moments of comedic relief for the audience. Hiding in the woods, Rachelka (Dana Levanovsky) laments about her husband Wladek’s (Joshua Morgan) re-reading of the Sienkiewicz Trilogy. “…when he’d get to the end, he’d start all over again from the beginning. Laughed in the same places, cried in the same places… I thought I was going to lose my mind.”

“Our Class” comes to Washington under the direction of Derek Goldman. The translation is courtesy of dramatist Ryan Craig

DC Metro Theatre Arts

Our Class’ at Theater J by Tzvi Kahn
Posted on October 21, 2012 by Tzvi Kahn

Our Class, the searing, emotionally devastating, and unforgettable new production at Theater J, constitutes both a play and an enervating pedagogical exercise – a Holocaust-era case study in the moral degeneration of individuals in the context of societal descent into genocide and madness.

At first, the story, which chronicles the lives of ten Polish classmates – half are Jews, half are Catholics – as their pre-war friendships disintegrate amid the Nazi conflagration, seems instantly familiar. What more, after all, can anyone say about the Holocaust in 2012 without lapsing into redundancy and cliché? In fact, however, the inspiration for Our Class, brilliantly and passionately directed by Derek Goldman and written by Tadeusz Slobodzianek, stems from relatively recent revelations about Poland’s own participation in the genocide.

In 2000, Polish historian Jan Tomasz Gross published the landmark book Neighbors, which presented explosive evidence that refuted Poland’s decades-long denial that it played any role in the Holocaust. Chronicling the willful slaughter of 1,600 Jewish men, women and children by ordinary Polish citizens – in fact, the Jews’ own friends and neighbors – in Jedwabne in 1941, the book spurred immense controversy, generating both heated denials and soul-searching alike as Poles found themselves forced to reevaluate deeply ingrained national myths.

Our Class not only explore the events surrounding the 1941 massacre, which entailed herding the Jews into a barn and burning them alive, but also the attitudes of its perpetrators in the years and decades that preceded and followed it. In this context, the play analyzes the role of memory and guilt, the haunting of the present by the ghosts of the past, and the ability of childlike innocence to morph abruptly and perversely into something profoundly unspeakable.

An outstanding cast – Tim Gettman (Menachem), Heather Haney (Zocha), Laura C. Harris (Dora), Alexander Strain (Heniek), Mark Krawczyk (Zygmunt), Dana Levanovsky (Rachelka and Marianna), Joshua Morgan (Wladek), Sasha Olinick (Abram), Ashley Ivey (Jakub Katz), and Harlan Work (Rysiek) – flawlessly depicts the complex relationships between Poles and Jews in all their subtlety and inscrutability, telling the story both literally and figuratively. In many scenes, the actors narrate the events as they unfold onstage, thus highlighting both their immediacy and their newly emerging role in Poland’s historical consciousness as a factual event that warrants retelling. A blackboard at the rear of the stage further accentuates this theme by announcing the beginning of new scenes as “lessons” – Lesson I, Lesson II, Lesson III, and so on. We must know and we must learn, the play practically shouts, for the people of Poland have wallowed in ignorance and denial for far too long.

From a technical perspective, the play emphasizes simplicity and minimalism, allowing the human drama to take center stage. The set, designed by Misha Kachman, consists of a single bare-bones classroom, highlighting the production’s role as a form of moral instruction. Ivania Stacks’s unpretentious costumes beautifully capture the fundamental normality of the protagonists as they face predicaments that are anything but normal. Daniel MacLean Wagner’s lighting design subtly but effectively captures the presence of ghosts from the past that gradually come to haunt and torment the present.