The Haifa Municipal Theatre enjoys the reputation of being one of the most controversial companies in Israel. You can see why at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, where the group began a week-long stay last night with "Ghetto."
Subtitled "The Last Performance in the Vilna Ghetto," this nettlesome drama by Joshua Sobol is bound to stick in a few craws. It's meant to. With vivid theatricality, it raises all sorts of thorny issues -- from the complicity of some Jews in the Holocaust to the sanctimoniousness of others. It questions the legitimacy of Zionism and dissects the Jewish character. Above all, it challenges the indifference of anyone who dares think that history is unlikely to repeat itself.
Although the play is performed in Hebrew, language is no barrier. The acting is expressively concise and the dialogue is expertly translated over headsets available free of charge. Incorporated into the play are songs, satirical and plaintive, and dances, bizarre and accusatory, that speak for themselves. Indeed, when a Nazi officer forces a young Jewish songstress to perform "Swanee" with him, vaudeville style, the dementia of the endeavor is almost palpable.
Based on fact, "Ghetto" is a play formed of memories and shaped by imagination. A group of actors is re-creating for us the short and turbulent history of an actual Jewish theater company that operated in Vilna, Poland, in 1942 and 1943, before the Nazis liquidated the entire ghetto. The doomed troupe is supposed to keep morale high and foster solidarity. But there is no united front against Nazism in Sobol's drama.
Some try to survive by their wits; others count on a humiliating subservience to save them. Weiskopf, a dispossessed tailor (Rami Danon), makes himself a fortune by setting up a factory to repair and clean Nazi uniforms, while Kruk, the ghetto librarian (Ilan Toren), wraps himself in the weary resignation of the intellectually superior. But it is Gens (Youssef Abu Warda) whom audiences will find the most troublesome. He is the Jewish police chief, empowered by the Nazis to govern the ghetto and carry out their dictates. He chooses those who are marked for death and those who will live another day. Although he believes Germany will go down in defeat, he knows large numbers of Jews will be exterminated first. The survivors must be strong, he claims, in order to rebuild a community afterward. "At the cost of 100 lives, I save 1,000," he says, arguing with cold pragmatism for the survival of the fittest. This is not thinking to make us comfortable. In one of the evening's most searing passages, the actor turns directly to the audience and snarls, "In order to save some people's conscience, I had no choice but to plunge into the filth, leaving my own conscience behind."
"Ghetto," however, does more than stir up a moral hornet's nest. As staged by Gedalia Besser in a set that juxtaposes a huge armoire of books, a mountain of used clothes and a stark wall that could be the side of a boxcar, waiting to cart away new victims, it is filled with nightmarish imagery. The look is as hard as Sobol's tone is unflinching. There's no place for easy sentimentality here.
The performances are uniformly disciplined, but against the grimness, blond Riki Gal, the troupe's lead singer, stands out with trembling vulnerability. Doron Tavori's Nazi officer is rendered with a chilling lack of the usual stereotypical behavior, while white-faced Ami Weinberg, as a ventriloquist's dummy, brilliantly plays the fool in this court of the damned.
"Ghetto" will be repeated tonight at 7:30, and tomorrow at 1 and 7:30 p.m. On Friday and Saturday, the troupe will perform another Sobol play, "The Soul of a Jew."