|Will Lyman and Rebekah Maggor, with Ken Baltin (background), star in Leslie Epstein's Holocaust play "King of the Jews." (KATE SNODGRASS)|
In a Jewish ghetto, a universal tale
We walk through the doors of the small black-box Studio 210, upstairs from the elegant main stage of the Boston University Theatre on Huntington Avenue, and we find ourselves in a hazy, dark nightclub called the Astoria Cafe. A mournful recorded clarinet plays '30s jazz as the lights go down.
As they come up again, live musicians -- on piano, cello, another clarinet -- start to play. We don't know it yet, but the musicians are trapped here, as surely as if they were in prison or in hell. What we also don't know yet, but will realize with searing and inescapable clarity before the night is over, is that we are all in it together.
That is the simple, dark, and brilliant truth at the heart of "King of the Jews," the brave and humane piece of theater that Leslie Epstein has hewn from his own 1979 novel about a Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland. This is a closely observed and specific Holocaust story, and it is also a huge and universal one about how any of us can wake up in a nightmare world in which no choice feels right, but making no choice is impossible.
Epstein has taken the sprawling cast and events of his novel and distilled them into a few people in a single room. In this production by the Boston Playwrights' Theatre, a stunningly taut staging by Jon Lipsky on Jon Savage's ingeniously claustrophobic set, the distillation works. For the eponymous "king" and the Jewish council he leads (our musicians among them) lie at the center of the story and of its concerns.
Forced by the Nazis to rule their fellow Jews in the ghetto, the 10 members of this "Judenrat" soon become both judge and prisoner, victim and executioner. The council must select 100 Jews to be sent away -- to work on a farm, the council members are told, but even without the horrible knowledge that hindsight gives us, they have their doubts. And so the bargaining begins: Can they reduce the quota by offering bribes? Send the old and weak, who would probably die soon anyway, or condemn the criminals, who "deserve" whatever fate they get, or sacrifice themselves?
It is not so much the specifics of their bargains as the horror of having to make such bargains at all that propels the story forward, and us along with it. Is I.C. Trumpelman, the enigmatic leader (based on the actual, and controversial, head of the Lodz ghetto), a self-serving collaborator or a canny protector? Is it corrupt or noble to sleep with the enemy if it might save a friend? Would suicide be the coward's way out, or the only moral answer to a command to do evil?
"King of the Jews," both novel and play, is all the more powerful because it does not hand out answers to any of these questions. Instead, Epstein gives us wonderfully complex and contradictory characters -- not saints, not devils, but human beings, people who have no more answers than we do, and yet are forced to respond.
Remarkably, the large cast uniformly rises to the challenge of creating these characters with subtlety and fire. Will Lyman's charismatic, troubling Trumpelman; Rebekah Maggor's tormented singer; Ken Baltin's pragmatic, imperfect mensch -- they deserve to be singled out for praise, but so does every single member of this beautifully coherent ensemble. Bradley Thoennes, as the Polish collaborator who carries the Nazis' escalating demands, is a perfect pig: greedy, creepily cheerful, chilling. And Michael Balcanoff and Paul D. Farwell provide comic relief as a couple of bickering rabbis.
Well, "comic relief" is not quite the right term. For what may be most unusual, most memorable, and most important about Epstein's work is how deeply funny it is. The novel's mordant wit provoked controversy when it first appeared -- how dare he joke about the Holocaust? -- but "King of the Jews" would not be what it is without the laughs.
Without laughter, it would be less human. And if it were less human, it would provoke less sorrow, less dread, less repentance for the evil we humans can do.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.