By: Isa Goldberg
January 26, 2024: With the use of immersive storytelling techniques – video cameras, projections, graphic animation, mime, and song, Our Class follows the lives of ten classmates, in a small town in Poland. Written by Tadeusz Słobodzianek in 2009, and adapted by Norman Allen, the drama covers the decades from 1925 through the 20th century.
Currently, the production at Brooklyn Academy of Music Fisher, Fishman Space is as unusual and intriguing a theater piece as one can hope to see. Part docudrama – the play is based loosely on the atrocity at Jedwabne, a small Polish town with a substantial Jewish population since the 17th century. In 1937, the town’s population of approximately 2,800 was 40% Jewish, most of whom were killed during the war.
That recent investigations have uncovered that the direct perpetrators of the event were ethnic Poles, repudiates the pre-existing belief that the Poles suffered as much as the Jews did, and behaved heroically unto their plight throughout World War II. This no longer appearing to be the case, elevates its inhumanity.
When we first meet the classmates, they’re children – their lives are resoundingly easy, and free. Their relationships open – unbiased, and unguarded. But once war breaks out, and the Nazis invade the town, followed by the Russians, their lives take a fateful turn.
Słobodzianek’s drama focuses on this transformation in people’s behaviors and relationships, and makes us wonder how their lives could change in such tragic ways. How do innocent people turn out to be ruthless criminals?
Structured as a series of 14 lessons, or scenes, the action is framed to keep the audience on the outside. Classes in foreign languages, for instance, are charming to watch, but still foreign; it keeps the audience at bay. On the other hand, a sing along with the children encourages audience participation, and sharing.
In addition, the stagecraft used to manipulate the audience is sophisticated theatrically. At one point, one of the students leaves to go to America. Upon exiting, the audience sees him in a video standing outside the very theater we’re sitting in. Such a swift anachronism, and a blinding irony, it defies understanding.
Finally, with the tug of war – on both micro and macro levels, the audience is forced to experience the atrocities on stage. They’re shocking of course. And as directed here by Igor Golyak the emotional and physical violence is also heightened symbolically.
In one pivotal scene a young Jewish man, Jakub Katz (Stephen Ochsner) is beaten to death by fellow citizens with fence posts, in the town square. When he finally collapses in front of his house, barely breathing, another classmate smashes him with a cobble stone, Jakub’s warm blood spritzing his face.
The same action is symbolically portrayed, when Jakub’s white soccer ball turns into a red mess of guts, and his death, beautifully choreographed by (Or Schraiber) – a walk on a ladder.
As though he were walking the Via Dolorosa, Jakub transforms from victim, to the horse on which he dreams of escaping, to the rider. Finally ascending into the beyond, he reaches his old classmate Abram (Richard Topol), now in America studying to become a rabi.
It is one of many stunning moments in this production that contrast reality and illusion. What is real and what anyone imagines could have happened is at the crux of the drama.
Throughout the play, there is an element of inquisition, with each character presenting their version of what happened there, and then. Even Heniek, the classmate who becomes a priest, seems hell bent never to repent. He challenges what his friend calls the truth. “Which one, Władek? There are so many.”
Along with the disparaging inability to come to terms with these murders, are the revolving hatreds, and endless acts of revenge.
Another Jewish classmate Menachem (Andrey Burkovskiy) escapes death by hiding in a pigsty, through the good graces of his Catholic girlfriend, Zocha (Tess Goldwyn). After the war, as a member of the Polish Secret Service, Menachem seeks revenge on Jakub’s murderers, torturing his old classmates, and beating priests, until exiled by the Polish government. Later, with his new family in Israel, he discovers a peaceful life on a Kibbutz…until he loses a loved one to a terrorist attack.
A most outstanding ensemble of actors makes this production most engrossing, and provocative. As Rachelka, and later Marianna, Alexandra Silber has the smoldering confidence of a young Stockard Channing. Her on stage presence is radiant, her singing beautiful, and her transformation into the elderly Marianna most delicate.
As the Catholic man who marries her, and saves her life, Ilia Volok’s Władek is a husky albeit endearing presence. Gus Birney’s Dora, wan before her years, gets snuffed out quickly. Her ghostlike presence is worlds apart from Tess Goldwyn’s Zocha. A most unpretentious “girl next door” – she remains true to herself, and innocent of evil.
The most conniving and gutless character, and former classmate, Heniek acts like he’s still carrying out some heroic mission, even after the war is over. As played by an understudy Benjamin Evett, (the night I saw the play) it’s a vivid picture of a man with an unparalleled claim to hypocrisy, religious and otherwise. Quite a reviling and bathetic character.
In the central role, Richard Topol, portrays Abram, the young man who leaves Poland before the War to become a rabi. Well known to New York audiences, Topol gives a standout performance.
The Intriguing theatricality of this production adds to the enigma – the mystery and the inexplicable nature of what we see on stage. Throughout much of the play, animated chalk drawings (by Andreea Mincic) dash around on a screen in the background, white balloons at first signaling surrender, carry the faces of Jews with big noses and hairy ears.
Helmed by Igor Golyak, technology is used to great artistic benefit here, and as it blends with the age old elements of stagecraft – like children playing in the yard, it captures us in the mystery of these mysterious times.
Our Class *****
BAM Fisher/Fishman Space
321 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NYC
Through February 11, 2024
Photography: Pavel Antonov