Under the Poplar Trees – Scar of David
While I was watching Under the Poplar Trees, now at Fells Point Corner, this weird thought occurred to me: what if there’s a hate hole somewhere out there in the universe? What if an incomprehensibly awful event like the Holocaust could form a giant, sucking, vast hate hole that seems like it could be closed with more hate but actually can’t be, ever? What will sew that hole and how could we ever fucking find the thread? I know that’s bizarre, but this show takes you on a journey, man. Rosemary Frisino Toohey makes a quiet, simple story that stands in front of the ridiculous, insensitive clowning of a Life is Beautiful and the terrible torture porn of an Apt Pupil and looks at them and judges them and is so, so much better. I was deeply affected by it, even more so than when I look at pictures of the nail scratches on the walls of the gas chambers or the faded photos of ghastly faces looking out from behind barbed wire fences. It isn’t that I think that those pictures, those things, should not be seen and spoken of, but looking at them with rapt (even thrilled) fascination too much for too long does the exact opposite of what we need – it pulls away the humanity when what we need is to go towards it. And this play goes. towards. it. On a stage that manages to be both homey and stark, with a cozy little hardwood table set against largely unadorned walls, Toohey’s intentionally jarring, yet subtle, juxtaposition is excellently echoed in the set (design by Tony Colavito) and evident from the first moment. In the background, harshly projected, we see the famous words on the gates of Dachau, Auschwitz, and many other concentration camps: Arbeit macht frei. Work makes you free. Suddenly, we’re in 1944, at the barracks of Dachau, where a new prisoner named Josef (Justin Johnson) is spouting some nonsense about cockroaches and crumbs, much to the irritation of his bunk mate, Meyer (Karin Zelenka). Meyer has seen much and been in the camp for too long, but something about Josef’s inconceivable ability to remain joyful in the face of such pain starts to get to him, starts to change him. Josef is like the grass and the trees that grow in the camp, blithely, as if they don’t even realize they are in the most horrible place existent. At first I thought the character was unbelievable, but as the show went on, Toohey gently reminded me that there actually are such people on earth, people for whom happiness is a resistance, sometimes the only revolution they are allowed. We flash forward to now, Brooklyn, where a ninety-one year old Meyer (Jeff Murray) lives with his wife, Clara (Annette Mooney Wasno). Meyer is closed off, bitter, unhappy, as well he should be. He survived the camp, but his soul is heavily bruised with the kind of beating that years don’t fade. As the play uncoils, we see scenes of Josef, both watching and commenting on Meyer and enjoying his afterlife, a paradise made paradisaical by the beautiful Desiree (Beth Amann), a dream goddess of highest order. We also meet Meyer’s grandson, Aaron (Max Lanocha) about to be a father himself, and thirsting for the unbelievable history of his family, like we all would. Miriam Bazensky directs this with a light hand, she doesn’t push. She has a singular ability to exercise restraint but be in no way held back. It’s lovely, really. The cast is fucking outstanding, too. Jeff Murray, curiously playing yet another man consumed with bitterness (I last saw him in this spring’s Amadeus at FPCT as Salieri) but this time because he is too full of ghosts, is just magnificent. He brings Meyer to life like Dr. Frankenstein, only, unlike that chucklehead, it’s a real, real man he manages to create, no monsters to be seen. I was fully committed, invested, in him and believed him all the way. His chemistry with Wasno was amazing – I felt like they had really been married for years and years. Justin Johnson is a performer that I will be watching for years to come. I reveled in his performance, I savored it. He gave Josef so many layers, layers of desperation, of hope, of joy, of, yes, of course, yes, of fear. He was absolutely striking. The moments between he and Zelenka were the heart and soul of the play. There is a scene near the end, right after the poplar trees where Zelenka and Johnson ascend to an almost spiritual level that broke, broke, broke my heart. Amann provides a tender, peaceful and funny counterpoint to Johnson’s energy and Zelenka’s intensity – she brings the mellow that allows us to step back and breathe.
BOTTOM LINE: Under the Poplar Trees approaches the incredible, just incredibly fucking tragic, subject of the Holocaust with something lacking so many stories of this type: delicacy. Delicacy and grace, unnerving grace. This play is epic, universal, big. An excellent cast, thoughtful and simple tech and fluid direction make the themes hum and resonate like a tuning fork in your heart. This is a beautiful showcase for humanity. Deeply worth it. See it now.
Running at Fells Point Corner Theatre until August 31st.
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