By Howard Walper, Steven Gottlieb, and Andrew Lloyd Baughman
Produced by Landless Theatre Co.
Reviewed by Janice Cane
Renaissance, now making its debut in the black box at D.C. Arts Center, is by all means a play that makes you think. Throughout the one-act show, I felt introspective: “This play poses several interesting, provoking questions. What are my own personal answers to them?” Until the very last moment, when I was forced to ask a very different question: “What were the playwrights thinking?”
That last moment presents a serious challenge in writing this review, as my entire opinion of the play then took a sharp left turn, but I cannot explain why without ruining Renaissance’s “punch line” for you. This is doubly frustrating because Renaissance doesn’t need a punch line. The basic story line is solid enough to not require a twist ending or the various subplots the playwrights threw in. Fewer distractions and an even remotely plausible ending would have made the story much more powerful.
Shalom (Allan Kulakow) is an elderly gentleman living in Tel Aviv with Emma (Penny Peterson), his wife of 25 years. They met at the end of World War II, when Shalom saved Emma and her companions from certain death. Emma survived the concentration camps, but Shalom has no recollection of his own past before their meeting, thanks to a bullet lodged in his brain. Shalom, frustrated by his amnesia, fills notebooks with drawings of faces he almost remembers.
It becomes clear early on that Shalom, an Israeli war hero about to receive a medal for his bravery had been a Nazi. A vigilant Nazi hunter, David Reubens (Alex Zavistovich), is on his case, and when Reubens makes his accusation, Shalom cannot deny it might be true. This raises the play’s fundamental question: Does a man’s past, no matter how sinister, outweigh the good he has accomplished since then? Shalom wonders if Emma could still love him and forgive him for any past wrongdoing. After all, he “could have been a monster,” and “there are some things so evil, no man can redeem himself.”
As Shalom struggles to remember, his wife struggles to forget. Emma lost her first husband and a young daughter during the war, and she longs to put her pain behind her but cannot. In a tender scene, as Shalom sketches that lost daughter based on Emma’s tearful description, I found myself wondering which is harder—to remember or to forget? The play’s main theme of forgiveness is powerful, but this secondary one struck a deeper chord with me, as my own grandmother—a survivor of Auschwitz and several other concentration camps—loses more of her memory to Alzheimer’s disease.
Shalom inevitably intones that familiar phrase, “Never forget,” but as trite as it may be, it remains an important message, and Renaissance certainly puts an interesting, and ironic, twist on it.
Unfortunately, multiple subplots and an overabundance of characters detract from the play’s insightful core. We learn at the beginning that Emma has cancer, but this never really comes into play and seems entirely superfluous (yes, the cancer makes her more aware of her mortality and therefore anxious to tell her story, but old age could have had the same effect). Equally unnecessary are Reubens’ marital problems, caused by his obsession with Shalom.
More relevant but ultimately confusing is the fact that Reubens’ father was one of Emma’s companions back when Shalom saved their lives. The elderly Reubens had kept a swastika-adorned knife that Shalom mysteriously possessed, which helps prove Shalom’s true identity. This is all just too contrived. Zavistovich’s portrayal of father and son is passionate and convincing, but the double-casting leaves plot matters too murky for too long.
But the character list isn’t complete yet. We have Reubens’ boss, played by John Sadowsky. The actor also portrays another survivor, Baruch, but neither character is essential to the plot. Without Baruch, his grandson Brian (Dan Cullen, who also plays a Nazi) would not exist, and that, too, would be just fine. The actors do a superb job with the multiple roles, but in the end, there are simply far too many characters
Renaissance was originally conceived as a screenplay, and perhaps all this choppiness could be alleviated in that form. But for now, the action is on stage, and it is not too late for director John-Paul Pizzica to help guide the performers through the transitions more smoothly.
One helpful device is Shalom’s paintings, which he takes off the wall and places on a small easel to set certain scenes. This is a clever way to utilize an otherwise simple set (by Dee Ann Lehr; props by Momo Nakamura).
If only the play itself were more simple.
(Running time: approximately 1.5 hours) Renaissance runs through May 19 at the District of Columbia Arts Center in Adams Morgan, 2438 18th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20002. Tickets are $18 and can be purchased online at www.landlesstheatre.org. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Two additional performances will be offered Thursday, May 10, and Thursday, May 17, at 7:30 p.m.