Thursday, May 8, 2014

Don't Stop Believing

Theater is my temple and my religion and my act of faith. Strangers sit in a room together and believe together~ Harvey Fierstein

And sometimes that believing gives you a sense of history retold...or foreshadowed.

The Jewish Community Center was the venue for guest director Carol Piersol's production of Israel Horovitz' "Lebensraum," an incredibly powerful piece that had three strong actors plating 50+ roles using a wooden wall of props over 90 minutes.

The premise was both simple and far-fetched: what if a future German chancellor invited six million Jews to come to Germany with the promise of citizenship and full benefits as a way to assuage their sea of guilt for the Jews killed during the Holocaust?

The actors - Stephen Ryan, Matt Shofner, Sara Heifetz- were mesmerizing, shape-shifting from character to character to narrator and back again, sometimes in the course of two sentences.

Simple props, voice inflections and accents helped define characters as the story unfolded.

The chancellor's "project homecoming" is shown eliciting very different reactions. A concentration camp survivor wants to go back for revenge. An out of work Massachusetts dockworker wants to move his wife and son to Germany. Israelis fear for the safety of their people.

In one brilliant scene, Stephen portrayed two men having a conversation, putting on different hats, voices and demeanors to convey the decidedly different essence of each.

There weren't a lot of lighter scenes, but one involved the arrival of a Jewish, married, gay French couple (played to limp-wristed perfection by Matt and Stephen in berets) who want to claim their citizenship. Needless to say, they are not what the Germans had been expecting.

Sara managed to play both the non-Jewish wife of the dockworker as well as the teen-aged Jewish girl with whom her 15-year old son soon falls for and made both believable.

Their blossoming romance was the sweetest part of the film as the two learned that great loves are made not of similarities but of differences.

Him: You think I'm funny?
Her: You are funny!
Him: Then we most definitely need to kiss if you laugh at my jokes.

Piersol's direction was fast-paced so something was happening every moment, from the Boston couple becoming local celebrities to the German workers organizing to protest the jobs being taken from them for the new Jewish arrivals to Israeli activists arriving to become citizens in hopes of protecting their people.

Always someone was speaking, either in character or as narrator explaining the action. After a while, it felt eerily like a live action newsreel unfolding upsetting events even while intellectually, we knew we were watching fiction.

Hands down, it was some of the most powerful theater I've seen due in equal measures to Horovitz's story and completely compelling performances by the trio bringing it to life.

With the added weight of so much of tonight's audience being Jewish, it felt like we were watching something visceral and unforgettable.

My only regret was that I went alone so I didn't have anyone to discuss it with afterwards.

I was meeting a friend for a late dinner and conversation, though, just not about the play. I got to the Roosevelt just as the dinner rush was winding down and ordered a glass of Pollack Rose while bartender T. made sure I'd be at the next DJ night.

A DJ from my neighborhood record store playing late night tunes? Hell, yes.

With soul music uncharacteristically playing, the vibe tonight was slow and mellow, a terrific backdrop to meet up with my friend and find out what she'd been up to.

When the subject of my upcoming birthday arose, she posed a question. "How much technology can you stand?"

I think we all know the answer to that. I use a computer daily and won't own a cell phone until they pry the land line from my cold, dead hands.

"Have you heard of pagers?" she joked because she's so hilarious.

She had skirt steak for dinner while I chose pork belly, little neck clams and potatoes in kimchee broth, a spicy and satisfying bowlful that carried me through our discussion of mothers and daughters, double dragon and conspiracy theories.

Meanwhile I heard my name - first and last- called and there sat a recording engineer I know from the neighborhood, enjoying a cocktail with friends and are clearly surprised to see me somewhere other than Jackson Ward.

Which just goes to prove that he doesn't get out much or he'd know better.


  1. Karen, thank you so very much for being there last night. ...our preferred Richmond "glitterazzi."

    We all sincerely appreciate your kind words about the show, and the cultural commentary you lovingly provide for the Greater Richmond area.

    Thanks again, madam.

  2. It was my pleasure and a superb evening of theater thanks to the hard work and talent of you and your fellow castmates. I had the easy part just sitting back with strangers and believing.