Sunday, May 10, 2009

On-Stage: Way to Heaven

In 1944, representatives of the International Red Cross paid a visit to the Theresienstadt concentration camp that will be an everlasting stain on the organization’s honor. Tragically, they were completely fooled by the “beautified” Potemkin village the National Socialists had stage-managed for their benefit. The hoax of Theresienstadt inspired Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga’s Way to Heaven, whose premiere New York production officially opened last night at Teatro Circulo.

As the play opens, an unnamed Red Cross Representative wanders on stage, appearing disturbed and disheveled. A man shattered by guilt and self-doubt, he has returned to the site of his undoing, a concentration camp not unlike Theresienstadt, which he indeed gave a clean bill of health to in his official report. In a monologue, he explains the fateful events from his point-of-view.

The play then steps backward in time, showing the audience vignettes of prisoners rehearsing their parts to emphasize the artificial nature of this “play within a play.” A little girl sings sweetly, two boys have difficulty with a simple toy top, and a young couple quarrels, tripping over their stilted lines. Yet, it was all sufficient to fool the man from the Red Cross, which well pleases the superficially cultured camp Commandant, as he relates the same events in his own monologue.

However, the real crux of the play comes in the central fourth scene, as the Commandant scripts out and directs his charade with the reluctant help of Gershom Gottfried, whom the Germans consider a leader among their Jewish prisoners. Gottfried faces a fundamental Prisoner’s Dilemma: should he cooperate for the sake of short-term survival or sabotage their efforts in hopes of exposing the truth, most likely at the cost of his own life?

In sharply drawn scenes, Gottfried repeatedly asks the seemingly affable Commandant uncomfortable questions, like why do they constantly hear trains arriving, but never encounter any new prisoners. Well written and translated, what is left unspoken in this scene is just as important as what they do say. As a result, the nightmarish reality of the camp remains inescapably present, even though Way never shows any of the atrocities on-stage.

Although Francisco Reyes and Shawn Parr (as the Commandant and Red Cross man respectively) forcefully deliver their monologues, the two early scenes devoted to their point-of-view recollections give the play an unavoidable staginess. However, the dramatic confrontations between the Commandant and Gottfried are absolutely electric. Reyes chillingly portrays the banality and cold-bloodedness of the supposedly humanistic Commandant. While as Gottfried, Mark Farr conveys not only fear and confusion, but also anger. It is an intense, tightly-wound performance, perfectly capturing the anguish of someone in an unimaginable situation.

Way is an important, truly tragic play. Its strong cast overcomes the structural awkwardness, giving it a truly human dimension. Initially somewhat demanding, but ultimately quite haunting, Mayorga’s Way to Heaven runs through May 24th at Teatro Circulo.