World War II, and the Nazi annihilation of 6 million European Jews, ended seven decades and several generations ago. Since then, innumerable plays and films have depicted and examined those shattering events, from every imaginable perspective.
Well, maybe not every perspective. Because contemporary writers and other artists, Jewish and non-Jewish, are still discovering and exploring Jewish identity, and grappling with anti-Semitism and the ramifications of the Holocaust. And they are telling new variations on the old stories, in different ways, with present-day relevance.
This month, two works with fresh approaches are opening in Seattle theaters. Paula Vogel’s Tony Award-winning Broadway play “Indecent,” which follows the journey of a controversial Yiddish drama over several decades, comes to Seattle Repertory Theatre. And “Everything Is Illuminated,” based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s tale of a young Jewish American man’s road trip into his family’s Eastern European past, premieres in a Book-It Repertory Theatre production directed and adapted by Josh Aaseng.
These plays look backward — not in the somber, documentary style one might expect but with jumbled time frames, humor, music, dance, visual projections and other creative devices in the mix. They are being conjured by Seattle theater artists who are keenly conscious of the upsurge in bigotry today — and are expressing their awareness and concern through theatrical visions.
Foer’s antic, well-received novel focuses on a trip to Ukraine in the 1990s by young Jonathan (a fictionalized stand-in for Foer). He is eager to visit his forbears’ shtetl (Jewish village) of Trachimbrod. And he wants to track down Augustine, a gentile woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazi massacres of the town’s Jewish inhabitants.
Much of the book is colorfully narrated in fractured English by Alex, Jonathan’s garrulous, American pop culture-loving guide on the Ukraine odyssey. Another narrative strand is Jonathan’s magical-realist history of Trachimbrod as he imagines it.
“Everything Is Illuminated” is not an actual travelogue, but a fantasia brined in absurdism and irony, and an attempt to comprehend a historical tragedy and its cross-generational repercussions. Said Foer, in a zine interview, “I wrote so many things that I did not know I cared about before I wrote the book — like being Jewish, like family history — then, you look at the evidence and it is like — I am not who I thought I was.”
In a time when anti-Semitic hate crimes are on the rise, white supremacy and neo-fascist groups are more active in the U.S. and globally, and a third of the Europeans polled in a CNN survey said “they knew just a little or nothing at all about the Holocaust,” Aaseng had a moral as well as artistic motive for dramatizing the book.
“How do you tell an impossible story? A story of a community that was completely annihilated,” he says. “How do you create a history when the keepers of that history have all been killed, save for a few?”
He adds, “One of the main reasons I was drawn to this is the unfortunate continuing relevance of anti-Semitism, what that kind of hatred and all forms of bigotry, can do — and how we need to fight them.”
Though not Jewish himself (though some of his cohorts on the show are), Aaseng has a strong connection to Ukraine. Now associate artistic director of Book-It, Aaseng and his wife previously spent two years there as Peace Corps volunteers. Also, his mother’s family hails from what is now Slovakia, near Ukraine’s western border.
The mordant humor of Foer’s tale, his GenX perspective and audacious blurring of fact and fantasy, results in what Aaseng calls “a meta, multilayered” style that could have special appeal to younger audience members who may know little of the history involved.
“There’s this idea that the act of creating is inherently an act of hope,” he stresses. “As devastating and horrific as the destruction was, the Nazis couldn’t fully erase the memory and knowledge of this particular village and these people. That’s a powerful thing.”
Paula Vogel’s “Indecent” addresses Jewish culture and genocide, homophobia, artistic freedom and other topics with another brand of theatricality. This play-within-a-play includes a poignant glimpse of a makeshift version of the Yiddish play “God of Vengeance,” staged in an attic in the doomed Jewish ghetto of Lodz, Poland, in the 1940s.
But to the sounds of live, fiddle-fired klezmer music and bursts of robust folk-dance choreography, “Indecent” flashes back to Polish writer Sholem Asch’s 1906 creation of “God of Vengeance,” a bold drama about a hypocritical Jewish brothel owner and the love affair between his cloistered daughter and one of his female prostitutes.
And much of the piece is devoted to the actual 1923 Broadway debut of “God of Vengeance” by a troupe of dedicated Polish Jewish émigrés. The production was swiftly shut down, and the cast arrested by police and briefly jailed on obscenity charges. Why? The portrayal of female subjugation, religious hypocrisy and overt homosexuality (including what was likely the first passionate kiss between women in a Broadway play) was harshly condemned — most influentially by a prominent rabbi who worried the play would reflect badly on Jews, and swell the tide of anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant sentiment that was brewing in America during that period.
How times change, at least in the theater: “Indecent” had a short but lauded, uncensored Broadway stand in 2017, and has had success elsewhere.
Vogel considers it particularly timely now in its depiction of the challenges faced by the Polish actors entering the U.S. in the 1920s, when the government was sharply restricting immigration — including by Jews fleeing religious persecution in Europe. “I’m very grateful to the play because it made me examine my identity, but I also felt [it] was also a metaphor for what’s happening now,” Vogel (whose father is Jewish) told Variety. Due to current U.S. policies, she said, “It’s a moment where we need to look at what we’re doing to immigrants and immigration.”
At Seattle Rep, under Sheila Daniels’ direction, seven actors (backed by three musicians) dance, sing and handle multiple roles on a simple set.
The show is deeply meaningful for Seattle cast member Julie Briskman, one of several Jewish actors in the production. “It means a lot for me to be a Jewish actress playing Jewish parts,” she says. “That opportunity has been very rare for me. … Telling this particular story, I feel my ancestors working on this play in a way I can’t explain. It’s on a cellular level.”
The ensemble needs to sing and speak at times in Yiddish, a fading language used by Jews, mainly in Central and Eastern Europe, for generations. Briskman also welcomes the chance to perform the piece during another period of discriminatory immigration policies, and an upswing of anti-Jewish bigotry in this country and state.
Portraying past and present injustices, Briskman says, “You have to go deep as an actor, and it’s sad often. But there’s also a lot of room in this play for joy, and heart, and community.”
“Everything is Illuminated” by Jonathan Safran Foer, adapted by Josh Aaseng. Through Oct. 6; Book-It Repertory Theatre at Center Theatre, Seattle Center, 305 Harrison St.; tickets start at $20; 206-216-0833, book-it.org
“Indecent” by Paula Vogel. Sept. 20-Oct. 26; Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St.; tickets start at $17; 206-443-2222; seattlerep.org