Our Class: Theater Review

Our Class Theater Still - H 2013
Kim Chueh

Our Class Theater Still - H 2013

Familiar material achieves universal power by dramatizing the consequences of history throughout decades and generations afterward. 

An Atwater Village staging revisits the infamous 1941 Jedwabne pogrom of Jewish citizens by its Polish population.

Our Class is Our Town in hell, that inferno being the collective trauma of selfish hatred poisoning lives well into our present century, neither victim nor perpetrator immune. This 2007 Polish play by Tadeusz Slobodzianek, first presented in this English version at London’s National Theatre, makes its West Coast premiere in an elemental staging by the unstintingly committed Son of Semele Ensemble, relocated to the Atwater Village Theatre complex. Performed in the round by 10 actors assaying 10 members of a local high school class (five Poles, five Jews) beginning in 1935, when the death of Polish statesman Jozef Pilsudski allowed the protection of Jews to deteriorate, the students commit unspeakable acts of betrayal as the depredations of war provide unconscionable choices for brutal evil and desperate opportunism.

There are too many close parallels to Thornton Wilder’s popular 1939 opus not to feel its deliberate influence. The towns are about the same size. There is the deployment of conscious archetypes, the observance of quotidian detail, the interaction of the unseen dead upon the living and the mode of narrating through direct address. Indeed, nearly all of the storytelling is conveyed through characters describing the scene and their action in exposition aimed directly at the audience, who as we surround the players remain ever conscious that their theatrical world is literally defined by our presence and attention. Yet unlike Wilder, more like Brecht, this particular inquiry has no time to pause for sentiment, for there are nearly 70 years to encompass, and pity a luxury earned only by a chance at a longer life.

The actual facts of this shocking yet emblematic pogrom remain controversial, as investigations have always been clouded by political agendas, which the play itself acknowledges. It frankly chooses to be not history but a lesson in history, a more difficult mission to accomplish. At first, its conceit seems contrived and self-conscious, always a risk when adult actors play teenagers. But the development of the many arguments and themes grows so complex that the familiarity of the subject matter is gradually transcended. What begins as the mawkish loyalties of schoolmates degenerates into such a deep moral morass that even noble actions have base motives, and in fact what everyone shares is not the bonds of affection but the imperatives of survival and the malice of greed.

If the story of the Exodus must be told annually at Passover, there is little reason not to retell that of the Shoah at least as often, and to have it explored by a Polish writer has particular value as expiation. The Soviet occupation of the town in 1939 brings out a collaborationist spirit among the Jews, rationalizing (but never excusing) the vindictive retaliation of the anti-Semitic Poles when the Nazis invade in 1941. This is not the work of a nationalist, or an apologist, or even a crusader. Instead the task is to make the dilemmas and motivations of all clear, as horrible as they are to understand.

Though everyone plays a single character, the relative brevity of their actual interactions with one another reinforces the inescapable solitude of each with their failings and regrets. No good deed goes unpunished, and the sins are rarely justly addressed. The start and end of the war go practically unremarked, and the last hour takes us through every decade of the aftermath with a tightening of the vise around each person’s fate, until the impression becomes unavoidable that all of us are inevitably prey to the ravages of ironic misfortune, and these survivors of both sides of unimaginable atrocity are ultimately not so very different from ourselves.

The company cannot take refuge in allowing themselves to submerge into character, since they are incessantly complicit with the audience in frank and bald performance. Under the unflagging direction of Matthew McCray, they are one and all heroic actors, as selfless as their characters are egoistic, full of bravura gestures expressing small souls. By dint of its poverty of means, Son of Semele creates an epic examination of the quandaries of 20th century existence with the magic of alert theatricality. 

Venue: Son of Semele Ensemble at Atwater Village Theatre (through May 5)
Cast: Melina Bielefelt, Sharyn Gabriel, Matt Kirkwood, Michael Nehring, Gary Patent, Gavin Peretti, Sarah Rosenberg, Kiff Scholl, Dan Via, Alexander Wells
Director: Matthew McCray
Playwright: Tadeusz Slobodzianek, English version by Ryan Craig
Set designer: Sarah Krainin
Lighting designer: Anna Cecelia Martin
Sound designer: Cricket S. Myers
Costume designer: Jenny Foldenauer
Music and Musical Direction: Sage Lewis, Matthew McCray
Dramaturgy: Barbara Kallir, Anna Podolak
Traditional dance: Edward Hoffman
Fight direction: Edgar Landa