Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Our Class"

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note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth

"Our Class"
a tragic, historic reminder

A Review by Sheila Barth

The Tufts University Department of Drama and Dance recently performed the New England premiere of Tadeusz Slobodozianek’s controversial “history telling” play, “Our Class,” based on the massacre of 1,600 Jews in the small Polish town of Jedwabne and nearby Radzilow three days earlier, in 1941.

So far, “Our Class:A History in XIV Lessons,” which was translated in English by Ryan Craig, had its world premiere in the National Theater in London in 2009, and has appeared in Toronto and Philadelphia. Although the town in the play is unnamed, it mirrors the heinous, hideous acts in Jedwabne, where Jews were rounded up, some murdered in the town square, but most men, women and children were beaten, herded into and locked in a barn, then burned alive.

Besides showing the partitioning of Poland under Russia and Germany and the country’s fight for independence, in “Our Class,” Slobodozianek, a Polish Catholic, raises the issue of whether it was the Poles who murdered their Jewish neighbors, then blamed their slaughter on the invading Nazis. The playwright isn’t alone in his thinking, especially in view of glaring eyewitness testimony and accounts of those who experienced the mass slaughter but refused for years to discuss it.

After Princeton University scholar Jan Gross wrote his book, “Neighbors,” proving the Polish involvement in Jedwabne’s slaughter, the inscription originally listing 300 Jewish victims murdered by Nazis on an erected commemorative stone was corrected in 2001. And months ago, after the 60th anniversary, that memorial was vandalized, showing that even though the ugliness of war and genocide is past, underlying fear and hatred persist. Recent claims blame the vandalism, including the defacement of an area synagogue, on a Polish nationalist group targeting all area minorities.

Slobodozianek indicates anti-Semitism was simmering, brewing, as Poland was invaded by Russia’s Red Army and the Germans. According to records, Hitler’s army invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, and the Soviet Army crossed Poland’s eastern border 16 days later. In June 1941, the Nazis controlled Jedwabne, and on July 10, all Jews, excluding seven whom Catholic neighbor Antonina Wryzykowska hid, were exterminated. Wryzykowska died Dec. 2, 2011 at age 95.

Regardless, experts disagree on what occurred during the Holocaust, but said this story must be told, to avoid its happening again.

In a post-show discussion, three experts/scholars - Leonard J. Baldyga, Omer Bartov, and Joanna Beata Michlic - disagreed on the historic value or importance of this 2-1/2-hour play, that traces a fictitious Polish classroom of five Catholics and five Jews, (some based on authentic people whose names are changed), from 1925 to 2003.

They did agree on a few things, though - this fantastic cast composed of Tufts students, under the insightful, deft direction of Drama Professor Barbara Wallace Grossman (wife of state Treasurer Steven Grossman), delivered superlative, moving performances, with few props or stage effects. Grossman said the play originally was three hours long, but she cut 40 minutes out to maintain its intensity.

The play opens in 1925, as classroom children sing and frolic together, save a few bullies, Zygmunt (Kyle Cherry) and Rysiek (Marcus Hunter), and their Catholic, less aggressive, follower buddies, Wladek (Andy De Leon) and Heniek (Thomas Martinez). Slim blackboard towers circumvent the stage, as years are marked off with chalk, to trace 14 time frames or lessons. As time progresses, the childhood songs become religiously and politically anthemic.

Studious Abram (Alex Kaufman) is lucky. His family moves to New York, where he studies at the Yeshiva and becomes a rabbi, corresponding through the years with his classmates and family back home - although most are gone.

There are so many powerful scenes that capture the classmates’ interactions, their fate, treachery, kindness, love, brutality, jealousy, revenge, fear, displacement, denial, and condemnation.

The young group of bullies beat to death their gentle Jewish classmate, Jacub Katz (Zachary Small), who’s based on the real Jacub Katz. Jewish town beauty Dora marries her school sweetheart, Menachem (Adam Bangser), and has a baby with him; but while he is away, those childhood bullies attack and rape her, then lead her and her baby into the mass conflagation.

As the Jews embrace the Russians as their saviors, the Poles embrace the Nazis.

To save pretty Jew Rachelka’s life, Wladek, who is in love with her, marries her and convinces her to convert to Catholicism. Their wedding gifts are booty stolen from annihilated Jews, some that Rachelka recognizes from her murdered family. She is given the Christian name Marianna, but is never accepted or welcomed.

Heniek becomes a priest, but without humaneness, while Catholic classmate Zocha (Cara Guappone) hides Menachem in her barn and has an affair with him. Throughout the years, including the commemoration ceremony in Poland in 2001, and ending in 2003, the surviving classmates’ fates intertwine, haunted by their memories while grappling with their identities.

"Our Class" (25 February ONLY)
@ Balch Arena Theater, Aidekman Arts Center, 40 Talbot Avenue, MEDFORD MA

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide