Famous Door Theatre Company

at the Theatre Building

By Justin Hayford

In September 1943 Bruno Kittel, the 21-year-old Nazi officer in charge of Vilna (now Vilnius), sat playing the piano as the Lithuanian Jewish ghetto there was being liquidated. When a young boy threw himself at Kittel’s feet and pleaded for his life, Kittel reportedly shot him with one hand and kept playing with the other.

This is the kind of moment most seize upon to prove that the Nazis were monsters–Steven Spielberg, for example. But Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol leaves the incident out of his 1984 play about Vilna, Ghetto, ending his narrative ten days before the liquidation took place. In a play about Jewish actors and musicians struggling to run a company, his Kittel is not simply a monster but a sophisticated former drama student and devotee of American jazz–music banned by his party. He carries a saxophone along with his Schmeisser. When the Vilna Troupe begins its productions, he seems genuinely delighted. When he forces the company’s “nightingale” to sing or be murdered, he’s so moved by her performance he sheds a tear. He also humiliates, tortures, and kills company members at whim.

As Sobol takes pains to point out, Kittel may have done monstrous things, but he was human–after all, intolerance, brutality, and genocide are the rules, not the exceptions, in history. For Ghetto to succeed we must be charmed and seduced by Kittel; we must see ourselves in him. Only then will we understand that Nazism breeds inside people like us.

This disquieting honesty has been the hallmark of Sobol’s work for more than 20 years: he’s made a career out of humanizing his enemies and demythologizing his heroes. His first major play, The Night of the Twentieth, written in 1976, dramatizes a long night in 1920 before a group of young Zionist settlers take over a strip of land in Palestine. Such pioneers are often depicted as heroic, selfless, and morally pure–much like their American counterparts in the early 19th century–but Sobol’s settlers are run-of-the-mill middle-class Austrian Jews, full of self-doubt and ideological confusion. In 1982 he wrote The Last Night of Otto Weininger, a brutal, surreal biography of the turn-of-the-century Jewish philosopher who longed for an Aryan world, arguing that weakness, destructiveness, duplicity, and ugliness were inherently Jewish.

Not surprisingly, Sobol’s work ignites plenty of controversy, and Ghetto was no exception, premiering when Sobol was artistic director of the prestigious Haifa Municipal Theatre. Still he’s completed his planned trilogy of Vilna plays: Adam and Underground followed Ghetto, and each is more brilliant and unapologetic than the last. In Ghetto Sobol forces together different performance styles–vaudeville, melodrama, surrealism, naturalism–to create a hypnotic, sobering nightmare. One moment his actors launch into a rousing production number that seems pulled from a dance hall, and the next they’re mute sexual playthings for Nazi officers in a drunken party scene that might have been dreamed up by Pina Bausch.

But despite the warring styles, Sobol’s view of human nature remains in perfect focus. The play begins with Kittel in the Vilna theater ordering a crowd of unemployed actors to sort through an enormous pile of clothes, presumably belonging to those killed at the concentration camp in nearby Ponar. Kittel’s subtle cruelty is horrifying, but in the same scene he also orders that a barefoot, nearly naked woman be given shoes and a dress, coat, and hat.

Both collaborating with and opposing Kittel is Gens, the chief of the Jewish police force in Vilna. When Kittel decides that 2,000 Jews in a nearby town–half its population–should be killed, Gens obediently dispatches his officers to do the job. But first he negotiates the number down to 600. In Gens’s estimation it’s better to let some die, even if he must kill them himself, so that others may live; giving the Gestapo free rein would mean complete genocide. It’s a morally untenable stance that keeps him poised between hero and villain, always on the brink of suicide.

Another collaborator is Weiskopf, an enterprising businessman who convinces Kittel to let him operate a garment shop in Vilna to clean and repair German uniforms worn on the Russian front, which otherwise would have to be sent all the way to Germany. When Kittel agrees, Weiskopf becomes a rich man and eagerly doles out money to his fellows, supplying the theater company with sumptuous costumes. But he always makes a show of his largesse. And though he argues that he’s staving off a liquidation and keeping his employees from being deported to the camps, he hires only a skeleton crew to run his shop.

All the Vilna plays create a moral morass where right and wrong, good and evil, are nearly meaningless oppositions. Sobol puts his characters into impossible situations where all choices lead to disaster, then forces them to proceed. And as a program note suggests, the audience is left to witness, not to judge.

But director Calvin MacLean is unmistakably judgmental, at least in the first of the play’s two acts. His Kittel, played by Frank Nall, is two steps shy of a mad scientist, even letting out a long, devilish laugh during his first appearance. Nall’s performance is exacting, rigorous, and convincing, full of nuance and black humor, but MacLean directs him to do only one thing during the first act: torment the Jews in the theater company. His every line seems meant to make them squirm, and he becomes a one-dimensional sadist. If only he’d truly delighted in the Jews’ art and culture and genuinely worked to make their theater succeed–if only he’d given the half-naked woman clothes out of kindness rather than mockery–he would have been the fully human contradiction Sobol intends.

With the exception of Gens and Weiskopf, the Jews are a pitiable mob in the first act, always acted upon but rarely acting. For a time it seems that being a Jew in Vilna entails walking slowly, stooping slightly, and cringing–unless you’re singing in a big production number, when you must suddenly adopt a pose of stern defiance. MacLean does an excellent job of re-creating the terrorizing influence the Nazis had over the Jews, but once he’s established this power imbalance he simply reiterates it in scene after scene. Rather than the galloping confusion Sobol envisions for his first act, MacLean gives us a series of museum displays. The actors end up not as characters but as icons of noble Jewish misery or sterile Nazi fiendishness. In either case, they’re rarely recognizably human.

But all that changes in MacLean’s powerful second act. Somehow the actors are infused with a new energy, and their performances lose their broadness. Sobol’s second act is more streamlined: the focus settles squarely on Kittel, Gens, and Weiskopf, allowing them and the rest of the cast to move beyond mob acting and dig deeper into their text. Gens’s moral struggle, which seems intermittent during the first act, becomes an unceasing, titanic internal battle driving every moment of Roderick Peeples’s riveting performance. Dan Rivkin turns Weiskopf from a one-dimensional pitchman to a desperate collaborator willing to do just about anything–including denying the pangs of his own conscience–to save his skin. And Nall makes Kittel so chillingly magnetic it’s hard to get him out of your system hours after the show ends.

When the second act heats up it becomes clear that presenting Nazis as monsters and Jews as innocents offers the audience nothing but complacency and reassurance–which Sobol can’t tolerate. He won’t let anyone off the hook, and ultimately Famous Door shows just how powerful that unyielding vision can be. If they’d only begin this production the way they end it, they’d be offering us something truly great. Perhaps they’d even grace Chicago with the entire Vilna trilogy. Someone needs to.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brad Miller.