“What sort of man is Adolf Eichmann?” asks Israeli interrogator Avner Less. “Does he feel anything at all?” These two questions are posed to us in the opening of The Extermination Machine, a play that depicts the belated cross-examination of Eichmann, a prominent Nazi official who evaded the Nuremberg Trials by hotfooting it to Buenos Aires, only to be captured by Israeli intelligence fifteen years later.
We begin the play by thinking we know the answers to these questions, but we leave feeling like a jury from a murder trial; an unshakeable feeling that we’ve only begun to understand the truth.
The Extermination Machine is an original work by See No Sun Stage’s Michael Wright, who also serves as the production’s director. Wright based the play on an abridged transcript of the 275 hour interrogation between Eichmann and Israeli police office Avner Less between the years of 1960-1961.
A friend had suggested to Wright that he write a play about the Wannsee Conference, the infamous hour-long lunch meeting that informed Germany’s public administration of what was yet to come; the Final Solution. Adolf Eichmann was the meeting’s designated note-taker.
Wright became more and more fascinated with the story of Eichmann, who is considered one of the most pivotal actors in the deportation of European Jews during the Holocaust, and became especially immersed in the accounts of Eichmann’s interrogation in Israel. Wright felt that the event’s circumstances, the cross-examining of a Nazi accused of mass murdering Jews by a Jewish chief of police who had lost his father in Auschwitz, would make a dramatic premise for a play.
The play’s sole setting is the dingy office of an Israeli prison, where Chief of Police Avner Less (James Radack) conducts the interview with Eichmann (Kim Curtis). Less gives us a rough synopsis of what has happened so far; Mossad, the Israeli secret service had found and kidnapped Eichmann from Argentina, where he had been in hiding for the past fifteen years. The intention was to try Eichmann for his contribution to the Holocaust.
Eichmann, who was a Kant devotee, believed in the categorical imperative. This is somewhat evident throughout The Extermination Machine, with Eichmann constantly re-framing his war crimes as following orders. A common tactic of Nuremberg Trial defendants, as discussed in the play, is to play ignorant to the full weight of their actions—to paint themselves as “little cogs in the machine” who were simply carrying out their duties as soldiers in a war. This guise is intercepted by Less, who subjects Eichmann to a factual dressing down; confronts him with incriminating orders that have his signature, reads him letters containing damning testimonies to his actions during the war.
Throughout all of this, Eichmann expresses no remorse for his actions, and goes so far as to point out the unjust nature of his capture, as well as the absurdity of conducting a fair trial with a Jewish judge.
While The Extermination Machine is at times flawed in its execution, the play succeeds overall in adapting a truly loaded subject matter for the Fringe festival set. The DC Arts Center’s black box bottling up of the interrogation between Eichmann and Israel police captain Avner Less puts an almost unbearably refined focus on the words and actions of two very different men. Distractions such as space and light are extinguished. The end result is a production that succeeds, albeit roughly at times, in transitioning from courtroom drama to film noir to intense philosophical dissection.
Radack, who was also in Wright’s production of Terre Haute from last year’s Fringe Festival, is skilled at delivering a time-sensitive Avner Less, who grows less and less concerned about putting a hold on his emotions as the interrogation proceeds.
It would be so easy to go on emotional auto-pilot and only switch course from rage to disgust here, but Radack shows us a Less who is undergoing an intense moral struggle; how good of a person is one expected to be in the face of such great evil? Despite suffering personal losses during the Holocaust, Less still cannot help but see some humanity in Eichmann, a factor that further complicates the man.
Curtis is adequate at playing the role of a man who is playing a role. He shows us the lines between Eichmann being old and frail and acting old and frail, and in that, reveals him for who he truly is; a skillful manipulator who is breaking at the seams.
Both actors suffer from the symptoms of a play that is so hung with heavy dialogue – occasional wooden delivery and at times an uncaring pace with the lines. The play is rife with all the details of an authentic interrogation; the thorough recounting of numerous dates, places, figures, locations and times, but as a consequence feels overloaded in parts. In this case, some authenticity may need to be sacrificed for the sake of a better story.
The Extermination Machine runs thru July 29, 2012 at DC Arts Center (DCAC), 2438 18th St NW, Washington, DC.
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Amrita rates this 4 out of 5.