Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, November, 2003
This is an exhilarating production of a fascinating play. In Lebensraum Israel Horovitz, one of America’s greatest living playwrights, has concocted a fantasy of what would happen if Germany suddenly invited six million Jews to emigrate there, in order to atone for the horrors of the holocaust. There is nothing politically correct about this premise or its execution, and yet the play manages to be both entertaining and deeply moving.
Lebensraum is a term Hitler used, meaning “living space.” His plan was to obtain more living space for Germans by annihilating the Jews and annexing several other countries. In Horovitz’s fantasy Germany offers the Jews additional living space by opening their borders to them. Immigration is always a delicate balance, and no country is equipped to rapidly assimilate six million more citizens. Jobs and housing are tight and Germans resent when the newly arrived Jews are given preferential treatment. A militant Jewish group from Israel, convinced that this is merely a ruse to lure another generation of Jews to their deaths, sends immigrants to establish a new army, ready to take action as soon as a Jew is killed. A holocaust survivor returns from 60 years of “relocation” in Australia to seek revenge on the woman who reported his family to the Nazis. An American family emigrates in search of better jobs and their teenage son falls in love with a German girl who has never met a Jew before in her life.
We are obviously talking about a cast of thousands here, but Horovitz has constructed this piece so that all the roles are played by three actors – two men and a woman – who also narrate. Minimal costume changes occur in plain view of the audience and every effort is made to remind those watching that this is only a play, only make-believe.
StageWorks Artistic Director Laura Margolies has directed this production and cast it with three versatile actors who have graced the stage in Kinderhook before – Robert Ian Mackenzie and Kirk McGee, who both appeared earlier this year in The Drawer Boy,” and Danielle Skraastad, who appeared in last season’s Brutal Imagination. Mackenzie is an astonishingly talented and likeable middle-aged performer, McGee is an energetic young actor, and Skraastad is a bright-eyed young woman with great emotional range. Lenbensraum gives them all a real acting workout as they hurtle through its 105 minutes.
Mackenzie has a delightful turn portraying two elderly holocaust survivors, Maximillian Zylberstein and Axel Rosenweig. At first their patter (yes, Mackenzie plays opposite himself alone on stage for several minutes) seems merely comic relief, but then we follow the seemingly happy-go-lucky Zylberstein back to Germany and to his patient, relentless torture of the 94-year-old woman who betrayed his family, and we see them both with new eyes.
McGee and Skraastad are charming as the teenage lovers – the American Sam Linsky and the German Anna Giesling. Again, Horovitz has woven both characters to tightly into the extended theme and plot of the play that they come to symbolize much more than young love and the hope of a more accepting future.
My only small quibble with this production is its pace and its length. An hour and 45 minutes is a long sit. Although I could see where an intermission would have interrupted the flow of this brilliantly written piece, I also wondered whether scheduling a break wouldn’t have allowed Margolies and her actors to slow down a bit. The show definitely had a breathless, rushed quality, which caused the actors to flub their lines occasionally. I would rather have had an intermission and been able to savor the performances a little longer, but it is possible that Horovitz dictated that the show be performed straight through.
As always, the production values at StageWorks are extraordinary. Rubén Arana-Downs has designed a deceptively simple yet perfectly functional set. A floor of weathered wood slopes upward into the back wall which has one large, brightly lit doorway in it. Two hollow rectangle slide in to center stage from either side, functioning as everything from bicycles to coffins. Pegs on the skeletal wooden bracing stage right and left hold the few costumes necessary for the lightening fast character changes. Guy Lee Bailey has done an outstanding job of selecting simple but versatile base outfits for the actors to wear, as well as small but perfect accoutrements needed for metamorphosis.
Lighting and video projections by Kevin Marc Taylor are also spare and flawlessly executed.
I am neither a German nor a Jew, though I am at least vaguely aware of all the strife that still exists between those peoples, but I did not find anything in Lebensraum that was overtly offensive. The play treats matters of prejudice very openly. I particularly liked the alarm raised when the first two Jews to take the Germans up on their offer turn out to be a gay male couple from France. Pierre and Jacques are hastily returned to Nancy, via the Chancellor’s own private limousine, and publicly replaced by the Linsky family from Gloucester, Massachusetts, who present a much more palatable picture of modern Judaism.
You need a certain amount of knowledge of the history of the world in the middle of the 20th century for all this to make sense, which is the only reason I am recommending that children under 13 stay home. I would encourage families to attend this show together – children, parents, and grandparents – and I would encourage local high schools to send their students. This is a play that makes you think and talk and consider. It is theatre at its best.
The StageWorks (518-822-9667) production of Lebensraum runs through November 15 at the North Pointe Cultural Center (518-758-9234) on Rt. 9 in Kinderhook, NY. The show runs an hour and 45 minutes with no intermission and is suitable for ages 13 and up.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2003