Illuminating a dark chapter in Poland’s history, Our Class at Theater J features a strong acting ensemble and assured direction by Derek Goldman.
On July 10, 1941, nearly all the Jews in the town of Jedwabne were placed in a barn for the purpose of awaiting transport to a ghetto. Once they were crammed inside, the barn was doused with kerosene and torched.
The 1,600 men, women and children were not rounded up for a pogrom by uniformed Nazis.
They were murdered by the other townspeople – their neighbors.
Our Class, now onstage at Theater J through November 4, shines light on this dark moment from Poland’s past. Boasting a strong acting ensemble, the play tackles a devastating story of community, atrocity and the aftermath of guilt and redemption. Ryan Craig’s English version of this play by Polish playwright Tadeusz Slobodzianek is both personal and epic.
Director Derek Goldman skillfully strips the play down to the essentials of storytelling: an illuminated stage, chairs, a table. Goldman offers his actors a chance to paint in bold colors on a stark canvas and they do so with imaginative abandon, even as their journey leads to atrocity. Goldman’s theatrical touch is heightened by the work of choreographer Emma Crane Jaster, providing a series of dances which show the social and ritualistic aspects of community which break down during the course of the play.
We are introduced to the ten member school class – three girls, seven boys – comprised of both Jews and non-Jews. Spanning more than 70 years, the members of the class go through the natural progression of growing up, becoming adults and finding their place in the difficult world.
Progress is not always a good thing. Since Poland was the stomping ground of the Soviets and then the Nazi occupation, the village and its inhabitants learn ways to cope and survive in a world they cannot control. At first the Jews seemed to have the upper hand, welcoming the Soviets to the town.
Once the Nazis arrive, the proverbial time-bomb is set, as the non-Jewish villagers work with the Germans to gain the upper hand. The Jewish residents feel oppression, fear, and degradation. Men are beaten in the street, and some of the women are savagely raped – by other members of their own class. The first half of the play builds to the devastating finale when the Jews are boarded up in the barn, while half the town is part of the mass murder – either passively or actively.
In the play’s second half, we learn about who survived, for good or ill. Times passes, but guilt and remorse do not. Some characters take revenge, some try to forget, while others fight for dignity and justice for the victims.
Our Class questions our assumptions about roles such as perpetrator, victim and bystander. As a painting of a community facing both the beauty and ugliness of humanity, there is no clear black and white; just shades of gray in which the characters get swept up.
The most remarkable aspect of Theater J’s production is the superb acting company director Derek Goldman has assembled. They work as a finely tuned ensemble, creating individual portraits that work seamlessly as a whole.
Ashley Ivey is sensitive Jakub Katz, who becomes the first victim of the German-fueled tensions. After being beaten to death by his own friends, Jakub, and the other casualties remain on stage throughout the entire play. As a character passes on, they remove their shoes and socks and move their school chair to the back of the stage – an effective and moving theatrical convention.
The savage rape of Dora (Laura C. Harris) by three of her classmates and German collaborators also makes an indelible impression. Rysiek (Harlan Work), Zygmunt (Mark Krawczyk) and Heniek (Alexander Strain), her attackers, come as close to antagonists as it gets in Our Class.
Closes November 4, 2012
1529 Sixteenth Street, NW
Washington, DC 20036
3 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $45 – $60
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Heather Haney is Zocha, who hides Menachem from the pogrom and his mistress. Joshua Morgan, as non-Jew Wladek, ends up marrying Rachelka – Dana Levanosky – to save her from being sent away or killed. But Rachelka has to become baptized into the Christian faith.
The tenth class member is Abram, played by Sasha Olinick. Intelligent and effusive, Abram moves to America but keeps in touch with his friends through a series of letters. He later discovers the truth about his hometown and classmates and works for justice for the victims.
Misha Kachman’s simple, school room set, with lighting design by Daniel MacLean Wagner, allows the storytelling to take flight. Costume designer Ivania Stack keeps the wardrobe simple. Working in tandem with the other elements, James Bigbee Garver’s sound design and Eric Shimelonis’s musical score add punctuation and color to the production.
In his director’s notes, Derek Goldman said the main question of Our Class is “What could any of us have done?” In a Polish village, many years ago, that question still lingers. And now it lingers on a bare stage at Theater J, asking a new generation the same question.
Our Class by Tadeusz S?obodzianek, translation by Ryan Craig. Directed by Derek Goldman. Featuring Tim Getman, Heather Haney, Laura C. Harris, Ashley Ivey, Dana Levanovsky, Mark Krawczyk, Joshua Morgan, Sasha Olinick, Alexander Strain and Harlan Work. Scenic design: Misha Kachman. Lighting design: Daniel MacLean Wagner. Costume design: Ivania Stack. Sound design: James Bigbee Garver. Properties: Samina Vieth. Stage manager: Jeanette Buck. Consulting musicologist, Bret Werb. Dramaturg: Stephen Spotswood. Choreographer: Emma Crane Jaster. Composer: Eric Shimelonis. Fight choreographer: Joe Isenberg. Vocal coach: Jennifer Mendenhall.
Megan Kuhn . Baltimore Post Examiner
Tzvi Khan . DCMetroTheaterArts
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