By: Samuel L. Leiter
January 22, 2024: Just a little more than a week ago I reviewed the Broadway production of Josh Harmon’s Prayer for the French Republic, a searing drama about contemporary anti-Semitism in France, with a subplot set during the German occupation of Paris. My very next theatre visit was to the Fisher/Fishman Space at BAM to see Polish playwright Tadeusz Słobodzniak’s Our Class, a similarly devastating work about anti-Semitism in pre-war, wartime, and postwar Poland. With the striking rise in attacks on Jews here and abroad, not to mention the war between Israel and Hamas, in which millions of people are supporting the instigators, plays like these couldn’t be timelier, even if they’re equally depressing.
First performed in 2009, Our Class has had since then a number of international and American productions, all staged in creatively theatrical ways. The one at BAM, adapted by Norman Allyn from a literal translation by Catherine Grovesnor, is in the deftly capable hands of Ukrainian-born director Igor Golyak, founder of the Boston area’s Arlekin Players Theatre, under whose banner the play is produced.
As an online note suggests, “Our Class is an exploration of humanity, an effort to comprehend who we are, who we can become, and how we might heal or and live together with some meaning.” Such optimistic statements often accompany plays of this nature; in reality, though, few pay any attention and, by and large, hatred continues too frequently to trump community.
Słobodzniak’s play is centered on an actual historical tragedy, the 1941 mass murder by arson of hundreds of Jews (perhaps 1,600) in the village of Jedwabne. What happened has been debated, since it was claimed that responsibility lay with the Nazis, while research in a 2001 book which became the play’s inspiration declared that Polish Catholics, the very neighbors of the victims, were the evil perpetrators. Despite formal apologies to Poland’s Jews (most of them liquidated) by Polish leaders, the Polish government again prefers to blame the Nazis.
Regardless, the play demonstrates what happened to the survivors, including the aftermath of marriage between a converted Jew and a Catholic, attempted retribution against former classmate by a Jew-turned-Israeli, aging, illness, and death, not to mention the bitter irony of Poles with blood on their hands being recognized for their righteousness in saving Jews.
Our Class is told through the interactions of ten classmates of the 1930s, five Jews and five Catholic Poles, seven men and three women. We see, through their relationships over the years, how what begins as childish teasing becomes mortally lethal when social and political pressures—the Soviet invasion followed by the Germans—incite more violent forms of expression, among them the vicious murder of a classmate (Stephen Ochsner) and the gang rape of another (Gus Birney). This, while the group ironically continues to consider its bond as “classmates” as strong as, if not stronger than, family.
Issues of guilt, remorse, responsibility, revenge, and the like pursue the living through the years, much of it revealed through the letters (seen here as video segments) between the sole Jew, Abram (Richard Topol, in a heartfelt performance), to have left Poland for America, where he became a rabbi, to his classmates.
The excellent actors, ranging in age from their twenties to their early sixties, establish their characters’ aging—those who live long enough—through movement and gesture. Sasha Ageeva’s simple yet characteristic costumes also contribute greatly. Several actors hail from Eastern Europe, as noted by their accents. (Similar accents could be heard among many audience members, including a couple that asked me for directions.) The actors are Gus Birney, Andrey Burkovskiy, José Espinosa, Tess Goldwyn, Will Manning, Stephen Ochsner, Alexandra Silber, Richard Topol, Ilia Volok, and Elan Zafir.
In a manner that flows easily back and forth between dialogue and direct address (sometimes in the same speech), and with occasional infusions of song and dance, they present the story, covering 1925 to 2003, in a manner that ignores the fourth wall, suggesting both docudrama and story theatre. Sometimes they briefly interact with people in the front row.
The atmosphere is that of a classroom, augmented by each of the fifteen scenes being called a lesson, its number both being announced when the scene begins and written in chalk (with the year or years it represents) on the towering, multifunctional blackboard (set by Jan Pappelbaum) that backs the open stage. A tall, shiny, much-used, aluminum ladder leans against it and, to either side, we see the offstage actors and their technical equipment.
With its frequent recourse to videography, both prerecorded and live, including actors shown recording what we see on either a standard TV screen or on the blackboard, the style is distinctly reminiscent of Dutch director Ivo van Hove’s. Our Class’s emphasis on instructing the audience via artistic jeux rather than realistically recreating the story—enhanced by the deliberately self-conscious, ominously shadow-casting, white lighting of Adam Silverman—evokes a decidedly Brechtian affect.
For example, the hundreds of Jews callously burned to death by their neighbors are depicted by helium-filled balloons with weighted strings on which cartoon faces have been drawn by the cast. As a result, its innately powerful narrative of the horrific events that occurred before, during, and after the conflagration becomes more cerebrally engrossing than emotionally overwhelming. You recognize and shrink from the experience while aesthetically distanced from its impact on your emotional core; at least, that was my response.
Our Class is a work to see, and, if not to savor, then definitely to remember.
Our Class ****1/2
BAM Fisher/Fishman Space
321 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NYC
Through February 11, 2024
Photography: Pavel Antonov