Holocaust Drama in Santa Monica Causes Friction With Poland's New Right-Wing Leadership

Paul M. Rubenstein
'Right Left With Heels'

City Garage's 'Right Left With Heels' follows Magda Goebbels' shoes, made from the skin of Holocaust victims, through post-war Poland. Producers claim the L.A. consulate reneged on a verbal agreement to back the play.

As the Red Army stormed into Berlin at the end of World War II, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife Magda poisoned their six children and committed suicide. That charming couple, to whom Adolf Hitler sometimes played marriage counselor, is gone, but Magda’s shoes remain — a pair of high heels, black, made from the skin of Auschwitz victims. Today, they could be anywhere, but figuratively they are at Santa Monica's Bergamot Station in City Garage’s production of Right Left With Heels, an experimental play opening Friday (running through Aug. 14) that explores the history of post-war Poland from the point of view of a pair of shoes.

Run by husband-wife team Frederique Michel and Charles Duncombe, City Garage is noted for staging works with a political point of view, frequently by Polish playwrights like Sebastian Majewski, whose Right Left With Heels was well received in his homeland three years ago. But since last October’s election ushered in the right-wing Law and Justice Party in Poland, things have changed. In fact, the Polish Consulate in Los Angeles, formerly a supporter of City Garage, has declined to involve itself with the new production.

“The doctor’s wife always wears nylons,” Lindsay Plake and Alexa Yeames said in sync during a rehearsal last week. The two actors wore matching red dresses and strawberry hair pulled back. On their feet were Magda’s shoes. One actor represents the right, the other the left as the pair of heels travel from one owner to the next over the decades.

“The shoes narrate from a very naive, oblivious perspective the process of the Holocaust and postwar Poland as if they too are guiltless, blameless, not really aware of their complicity in anything. That’s a very prevalent attitude right now in Poland,” explains Duncombe. At one point in the play, a doctor’s wife is at prayer, her conscience heavy with the memory of outing a Jewish friend in exchange for chocolate. Similar transgressions occurred under Soviet rule and later in the labor strikes of the 1980s and '90s.

“There’s also a betrayal of the collaborators," adds Duncombe. "It’s a very difficult time in Communist occupation when loyalties were split. The period after Solidarity where many people thought to be leaders of Solidarity turned out to be collaborators — none of this is a point of view the new government wants to promote or endorse.”

Since last year’s election in Poland, nominal Prime Minister Beata Szydlo has been shunted aside by Law and Justice Party firebrand Jaroslaw Kaczynski, a nativist known for thumbing his nose at the European Union, spreading anti-immigration rhetoric and, in his first four months, ramming through changes to the constitutional court, civil services and public broadcasting.

“One of the reasons why we wanted to do the play is it’s part of a real frightening rise of the reactionary right across Europe and certainly in this country, too. It’s another version of nativism, this idea of xenophobia, trying to whitewash history, trying to turn back the clock, this fierce nationalism, getting rid of outsiders,” says Duncombe. “It’s a more dangerous force in Europe, but it’s very alarming to see some of the tendencies here.”

Relatively new to Los Angeles is Culture, Science, Education and Polish Community Counsul Ignacy Zarski, who arrived last summer before the election currently transforming his country. He met with Duncombe and Michel following a performance of City Garage’s Othello/Desdemona last spring and, according to Duncombe, was enthusiastic about the consulate contributing to Right Left With Heels in the form of promotion and a gala opening. That was before he read the play.

“The new right-wing government in Warsaw will not be happy if we support this project,” is how Duncombe remembers Zarski breaking the news to him. “We don’t approve of the content of the play. We don’t like the way postwar Poland is portrayed.”

Zarski recalls the discussion differently. “How can you withdraw from something that you never promised?” he asks. “Even before talking about the play they presumed that we would support financially all the productions that are connected to Poland.” In the short time Zarski has been in Los Angeles, he has seen three productions at City Garage, which hardly qualifies as a pledge of support.

“Ignacy’s a very nice guy and I think he’s sympathetic to the work,” Duncombe says of what he called a verbal agreement. “In his official position I don’t blame him. The only course he can follow is denial. Curiously that’s what much of the play is about, too, a denial of history, denial of reality of genocides, the turning away, the absolution of collective and individual guilt. Ironically, it’s about some of the very things that are transpiring here.”

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