As the dress rehearsal for The Grey Zone, a play written by Tim Blake Nelson that is being held in the Alice Austen Theatre this week, was about to commence, director Randy Kaplan informed those in the sparse audience that they would not enjoy the play. Her words were not meant to demean the hard work of her cast and crew but to provide a warning to those witnessing the production for the first time. The play was professional, engaging, thought-provoking, and emotional, but not enjoyable. Stories of the Holocaust rarely are.
The play focused on several Jewish Hungarians being held at Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in Poland in 1944. One of these men was Dr. Miklos Nyiszli, who was placed in the unique position of being spared so that he could provide medical care to the SS officers in charge of the camp. His friends were assigned the emotionally charged task of hoarding their fellow prisoners into the gas chambers and then burning the bodies after the gassing. In the midst of their plan to destroy the ovens, they discovered a young girl who has somehow survived the gas. Conflict ensued over how or even if they should help the girl as the Germans become increasingly on guard against the coming revolt.
The performance is being staged in the Alice Austin Theatre this week on alternating evenings with Arabian Nights. This marks the first time this has been done on campus in 15 years. Consequently, the performance was limited to minimal scenery. In fact, there was very little complexity in the staging as more emphasis was placed on the dialogue. This lack of visual spectacle required that the actors perform well in their work. The actors had the charge of portraying characters placed in life-threatening and morally challenging circumstances. The dialogue proceeded with a constant immediacy that required that the actors have a firm grasp on their characters' mind set.
This intense knowledge of an actor's role was perhaps most prevalent in the case of the doctor played by junior David Gordon. His position of not being trusted by either the Germans or his own people makes his behavior rather elusive. Apart from the dialogue itself, Gordon exuded a fearfulness that was different from that of the other characters. His timidity around almost every other character helped to convey his need to find a place in the horrific social structure of the camp.
Another role that demanded a great deal of effort was that of the young girl. Sarah Rychlik's character appeared to be without the capacity for speech. Rychlik succeeded in bringing the girl to life through guttural sounds and instinctual actions without getting repetitive. Each groan or motion had a purpose that was somehow made clear to the audience. Her facial expressions ranged from primal to relatively caring, creating a tragically sympathetic and real person.
Portrayal of characters during the Holocaust inevitably brings with it a certain degree of emotional difficulty. This was most evident in the role of SS guard Muhsfelt, played by senior Michael Rehor. The brutality of the character required a heartlessness that is difficult to recreate. The mere thought of playing an SS officer is something from which most would recoil rather quickly. However, Rehor managed to get inside Muhsfelt's head, bringing out several dimensions to a role that does not initially appear to require much depth.
Kaplan has maintained her reputation of tackling difficult performances with the utmost professionalism. Like many of her productions on campus, The Grey Zone includes a vast array of themes.
Euthanasia, the uncertainty of life during the Holocaust, the futility of self-preservation, following orders, and the value of one life over many are just some of the powerful issues that are brought to light in this intense performance. The audience will find it a rewarding experience, even though they will not "enjoy" it.
Tickets are being sold at the Brodie Box office now.