Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre has begun its new season with a play that’s neither Irish nor classic, although Our Class by Polish writer Tadeusz Slobodzianek has been earning a solid reputation since it came to light in 2009.
This adaptation by English writer Ryan Craig needs serious trimming, despite the admiration the script has been accruing. Repetitions of themes and dialogue abound in the second act as trivial narrative details keep coming.
No doubt audiences and critics are deeply disturbed by the subject of the play and how it is presented. Moreover Slobodzianek has created many powerful scenes, the later ones rich in irony. He has come up with a compelling and imaginative way to present the story.
Irish director Aoife Spillane-Hinks has invented visually vivid ways to enhance the concept aided by scenic and lighting designers Gianni Downs and Jim French. And this becomes even more richly compelling to watch due to evocative body gestures and poses created by Pittsburgh movement artist Mark Conway Thompson. Several of the young actors give excellent performances. But Spillane-Hinks needs to work more with her cast on how to deliver their dialogue, especially in the increasingly sluggish second act where many actors plow through their lines as if unaware of the essential meaning of their words, obscuring emphases in mundane delivery.
It may be that such interpretations intend to evoke the sense of Hannah Arendt’s phrase “the banality of evil.” Much of what the characters say and how they say it comes across as straightforward narrative, often blandly stated rather than colored by deep emotion. They do erupt with fierce anger but other emotions, such as sorrow and grief, rarely break through the surface. And much sorrow and grief lies within this story. Moreover that impact is diffused and lost during the concluding scenes.
Slobodzianek has written about the massacre of 1600 Jews in the German-occupied Polish town of Jedwabne during World War II. Recent research attributes the slaughter to the local people, most already inherently anti-Semitic The story follows 10 classmates from their mid-teens in 1926 all the way through their deaths in a variety of ways and places up to 2003. Five of these people are Jewish.
Collectively and individually they tell of what happened over the years, but the focus, of course, is on the massacre and how the victims and killers behaved. Most of this is staged symbolically rather than graphically, Even so, the detailed verbal descriptions of the brutality remain strongly disturbing.
Slobodzianek’s emphasis seems most to be on what was done but the evil people do not say much if anything to justify their actions, as if anti-Semitism were enough. This tends to put the audience outside what happens and not to connect with the victims and their classmates. This looks like an attempt to emulate Bertolt Brecht, given the interjection of many songs, the use of underscored music and the non-realistic settings and staging. That would make sense, as does a script where everything becomes increasingly distancing. Certainly the guilty ones and the survivors have chosen such distance as a way to deal with the past. You could intellectually see that point. But we are let off from identifying ourselves with people such as they.
The 10 member cast works exceptionally well as an ensemble, especially when portraying rambunctious children. Visiting actor Rafael Goldstein stands out most with passion, depth and personality as Abram, the only member of the class who leaves Poland before the massacre and returns to find the aftermath and to try to understand what happened in his absence. Also Pittsburgh actor Justin Fortunato leaves a strong impression as the seemingly colorless but actually smarmy Henick, a man who chooses to become a priest not as a mission but as a career.
As always, Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre admirably provides extensive and illuminating reading in its program book, so you will find much to understand about what happened in that tragic time and before, anti-Semitism never dying.
As for the play, we get to hear and learn much, but comprehending how and why it could happen is harder. Perhaps Slobodzianek does not intend to give us insight, rather asking us to bear witness. But when he or someone else like Brecht pushes us away, is thinking about the issues enough? Are we supposed to stay removed from such horrors and, like survivor Marianna, sit in silence before the incessant images of violence on television sipping tea and clutching cookies?
Our Class presented by Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre continues through May 4th at Henry Heymann Theater-Stephen Foster Memorial, Oakland .412-561-6000 - picttheatre.org