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      Holocaust Stories
    This all too hollow Holocaust

    The three movement-theater pieces in "Holocaust Stories" reduce the symbols of Nazi persecution to empty cliches — on the way to surprisingly meaningful concluding scenes.


    There are two big problems with staging new works about the Holocaust — it's too big and it's too small. The mass murder of some 11 million Jews, Poles, homosexuals, Gypsies, socialists and other anti-Nazi undesirables is so unfathomable that attempts to dramatize it risk coming up short. Yet, the subject has also had 60 years to recede — thoroughly recounted, its enormity described a thousand ways, its survivors given voice until they gradually grew old and faded from our contemporary consciousness.

    Directed by: Gabrielle Lansner.
    Cast: Paula McGonagle, Dee Pelletier, Darrill Rosen, Charles Tuthill..
    Inspired by the writings of: Bertolt Brecht, Cynthia Ozick, Kressmann Taylor.

    Related links: Official site
    The Duke on 42nd Street
    229 West 42nd St.
    Jan. 16-19, 2003

    Occasionally, as in the 2001 film "Sobibor," a new story is told and we glimpse the horror (or in that case, the heroism) from a stunning new angle. But typically, those who wish to dramatize the Holocaust anew are left with an almost impossible goal: to make us feel — feel its horror more deeply, somehow, than we have from all the memoirs and artistic works and real flesh-and-blood witnesses who have come before. Without an artistic vision so singular and original that it transcends the entire six-decade body of Holocaust remembrance, a new work is doomed to feel like an exercise — a reintroduction of evidence from a trial that's already over, a pushing of well-worn buttons.

    "Holocaust Stories" has this problem. It includes three crisply performed movement-theater works that pick up the familiar Holocaust relics and toss them around thoughtlessly. Yet, each is partially redeemed by a surprisingly strong ending.

    The first piece, "The Jewish Wife," based on a text by Bertolt Brecht, is the worst offender. If you know the first thing, literally, about the Holocaust, then you know the first thing that happens in this piece — there's a crash of breaking glass meant to recall Kristallnacht. The sound has an unreal pallor to it, obviously generated by a synthesizer that doesn't reproduce the actual dynamics of real breaking glass, and worse, the same shattering noises get replayed dozens of times. It's being played, as far as I can tell, by a guy at a keyboard blandly pressing a key over and over. The fact is reduced to cliche.

      Whatever it is that the swastika makes you feel, go ahead and start feeling it now.
    Then two actors playing a wife and husband (Dee Pelletier and Charles Tuthill) emerge, surrounding their sparse dialogue with movement as full of obvious symbols, repeated abstractly to the point of meaninglessness, as the sound effects that preceded them. There's the repeated crossing of arms at rigid right angles, suggesting a swastika. There are Hitler salutes and silent screams, again and again and again and again. And it's interesting what this does to the symbols — it empties them of meaning. Without being part of a clear story being told, the repeated display of a swastika communicates nothing by itself — it merely invites the watcher to attach any associations he already has to the fact of seeing it again. We know you came for an evening of Holocaust awareness, it says to the audience, so whatever it is that the swastika makes you feel, go ahead and start feeling it now. The more times the swastika is trotted out, the less it represents anything different from a traffic signal turning green.

    Near the end, the dialogue takes more form and we observe that the wife is Jewish and the husband is not, and this is a story about how loving people were ripped apart. None of this has been adequately set up, but there are a few hints. After the shattering of the glass, the wife starts packing her suitcase and says she's going to Amsterdam for a while. The husband tells her, "You know I have not changed, don't you Judith?" — supposing that the violence outside their door will not affect their life inside. "Yes, I know," she says. But she ultimately finishes the play with a monologue, both melancholy and calmly accepting, that makes it clear that everyone has changed and the marriage bond is weak compared to the upheaval that makes her flee and him stay. The speech carries a lot of emotional impact, although it's diminished considerably because their relationship has not been fleshed out before she gives it.

    "Address Unknown" continues the theme of how the Holocaust pulled people apart, with an exchange of dance-punctuated letters between the Jewish Max (Darrill Rosen) and his non-Jewish friend Martin (Tuthill). Having started as friends, art-dealing partners and like-minded supporters of enlightened politics, the two find themselves on different sides of the German border and the political divide.

    Martin devolves politically from one letter to the next, first insisting that he merely appreciates Hitler's devotion to the dignity of his country; later describing in unapologetic terms the pride and strength Hitler brought to the downtrodden Germans. Up to this point, the story is predictable, although Martin's words certainly make an impression: "You don't know our Hitler," he tells his expatriate friend. "He is a drawn sword. He is a white light." Before the end, Max will have begged Martin to help save his sister in Germany, and Martin's reluctance leads to a conclusion that is unexpected and thought-provoking.

    The last piece, "Magda," turns out to be the best, although it also starts unpromisingly. Two young Poles (Pelletier and Paula McGonagle) frolic together innocently before the Nazi invasion, and then their lives turn more desperate — with, again, words and motions repeated constantly, beyond the point of meaning or, frankly, interest.

    What makes "Magda" work is that some of the words and movements come back at the end, but we see this collection of fractured memories in a different light. A sudden change in the characters puts us in the present era, and allows the shards to come together in a way that makes sense and makes us appreciate the tragedy of a woman's life. The images of anguish expressed powerfully but disconnectedly by actress Dee Pelletier are finally given context and significance. It's a welcome return from the world of symbols to the world of humans.

    JANUARY 19, 2003

    Reader comments on Holocaust Stories:

  • About the Holocaust   from Shannon Tyburski, Feb 9, 2005
  • Re: About the Holocaust   from kimberly colon, Jun 2, 2005
  • Re: About the Holocaust   from krystal lee, Sep 13, 2005

  • Post a comment on "Holocaust Stories"