Let’s Remember OUR CLASS — Review
With the atrocities of war, ten characters, and a 3-hour running time, Tadeusz Słobodzianek’s Our Class is a hard sell. However, this moving and visceral production, directed by Igor Golyak, in an adaptation by Norman Allen, produced by the Mart Foundation and Golyak’s Arlekin Players Theatre for this year’s Under the Radar Festival, is not to be missed.
A massive chalkboard turns Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Fishman Space into a classroom, the place that brings together these ten Polish students: 5 Jewish, 5 Catholic—a division that only grows in importance as they get older. At the top of the show, a stage manager writes the names of these students on the board, followed by their birth and death years. Immediately, you’re made aware that some of these characters will live into their eighties, others such as Jakub Katz (Stephen Ochsner) and Dora (Gus Birney, heart-wrenching) only into their early 20s.
1941, the year of their deaths, is a year that changes the lives of these ten classmates forever. Their small village is brought under Soviet occupation and the antisemitism already present in the community, fueled by propaganda from Nazi Germany, spreads the dangerous notion that it’s the Jews that are agents of communism in Poland. Classroom allegiances are forsaken in the name of war as the Jewish members of the community—anywhere from 700 to 1,000 people—are rounded up by their own neighbors and burned alive in a barn.
What follows is the brutal aftermath of war. Even when the fighting is over, the staggering loss due to the pogrom and the choices these people had to make in order to live haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Słobodzianek’s choice to dramatize the personal relationships between classmates wisely centers the human cost of war. Golyak’s expert direction turns the mundane—balloons, silverware, chalkboard drawings—into unsettling reminders of evil. The actual human cost of war is unfathomable, even if the art about it is effective at showing it.
Richard Topol is brilliant as the sensitive Abram, a Jewish classmate whose family takes him to America before the pogrom and the piece’s quasi-narrator. His letters from the other side of the world are brought to us via livestream video messages (technical direction by Golyak). It’s one of the many innovative ways Golyak uses the space. The chalkboard is home to many surprises and the use of it for projections and drawings cleverly grounds the piece in its classroom setting, never letting the audience forget where these bonds were formed (scenic and projection designs by Jan Pappelbaum and Eric Dunlap, respectively; chalk drawing design by Andreea Mincic).
At its heart, Our Class is an ensemble piece and this excellent ensemble moves like a machine. A sense of camaraderie underpins the entire production, even in the pre-show and intermission elements in which the audience gets to see the cast interact before settling into their characters. Golyak starts each act as if we’re watching a staged reading, with the cast in modern dress. That framing device gradually melts away and the costumes begin to evoke period elements (costume design by Sasha Ageeva). Ten characters may seem like too many to follow but each one is well-drawn and startlingly human in this breathtaking production.
Every day, we are bombarded by news of war and genocide. Our Class is a harrowing example of what gets remembered and how. The pogrom depicted in the play is based on a real one that took place in Jedwabne, Poland. As is the case in the play, that pogrom was blamed on German Nazis. It wasn’t until 1999 that the truth came to light: Catholic members of the community organized and slaughtered their Jewish neighbors. But the arc of the universe does not always bend toward justice, as some of the characters who committed some of the play’s most heinous crimes, who turned on their own classmates, get to live out long lives, surrounded by family or propped up by institutions. This is the maddeningly grim reality of war.
While the subject matter is undeniably tragic, there are elements that bring hope to this piece, namely the resiliency of these characters and the strength of their human spirit. Towards the end, Abram writes to his old classmate Rachelka (Alexandra Silber, luminous and heart-breaking), whose decisions are some of the play’s most agonizing, saying, “Faith is the greatest of God’s gifts…if we throw this gift away, then anything that remains of our lives is without meaning.”
To have faith in the face of war in all its hypocrisy and violence, violence perpetrated in the name of religion, by governments who are willing to make their own people expendable, is a nearly impossible task. Still, it can be a balm even in the darkest of times.
Our Class runs through February 4th at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Fisher, Fishman Space.