Atrocity Upon Atrocity | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Atrocity Upon Atrocity

Why tart up the Holocaust?


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RESORT 76 Infamous Commonwealth Theatre

WHEN Through 9/2: Thu-Sat 8:30 PM, Sun 3:30 PM

WHERE Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark

PRICE $15-$20

INFO 312-458-9780

In a response to Hans-Jurgen Syberberg's 1978 docudrama Hitler: A Film From Germany, Susan Sontag wrote that any effort to simulate the atrocities of the Holocaust risks "making the audience passive, reinforcing witless stereotypes, confirming distance, and creating meretricious fascination." But a failure to examine barbaric acts like the systematic slaughter of the Jews through an artistic lens would be tantamount to a failure of art itself. As Robert Skloot writes in his introduction to the four plays collected in The Theatre of the Holocaust, the Nazi genocide "from nearly every angle, shelters some kind of profound truth about us all."

Shimon Wincelberg's 1962 play Resort 76 (originally titled The Windows of Heaven), now receiving a midwest premiere by the Infamous Commonwealth Theatre, addresses the Holocaust's horrors through a darkly humorous, fablelike story about a cat. It's not on a par with Underground or Ghetto, by Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol, but if you've never read "A Cat in the Ghetto," the 1959 short story by Holocaust survivor Rachmil Bryks on which Wincelberg's work is based, you might find a lot to admire here. You might also, however, be disturbed by Wincelberg's distortion of Bryks's work and dismayed by director Danielle Mari's production of the play.

The central premise involves the unusual appearance of a cat in Poland's Lodz ghetto, where Bryks lived for four years before his deportation to Auschwitz in 1944 and where owning a pet was a capital offense. Rumor has it that the Germans are offering a loaf of bread--a week's ration--to anyone who can deliver a live cat to the food administration, whose supply has become infested with mice.

In the story, the cat is found by Mrs. Hershkovitch, a "broken shard of a woman" who asks 24-year-old factory watchman Shloime Zabludovitch to turn in the animal and split the reward with her so she can feed her starving children. Over the next 50 pages, as Zabludovitch figures out how to accomplish his task, Bryks takes his readers on a sobering tour of the ghetto, where people boil sickly radish leaves into "meat," German guards shoot Jews out for an evening walk, and workers in Zabludovitch's "resort," as they call the factory, sanitize the bloody clothes of Jews murdered in the concentration camps to make carpets for Nazi officials.

Bryks's writing is spare, efficient, and seemingly artless, even as he creates a kind of black fairy tale in which cats are transformed into bread and Jews into rugs. "Living corpses with faces like dead grass lay sprawled on the meadow," he writes. "They were plucking bits of grass, trying to put it into their mouths. A Jewish shepherd, a club in his right hand and a yellow band on his left arm, drove the people away as his tattered yellow stripes in the form of a Star of David flapped in the wind. 'Want me deported?' he shouted." Like the three other novellas Bryks published in his 1959 volume A Cat in the Ghetto, the title story is a meticulous, unsentimental, invaluable depiction of a place the world must never forget but might have without accounts like his.

Wincelberg, a prolific German-born Jew whose TV writing credits range from Lost in Space to Law & Order, takes it upon himself to re-imagine Bryks's story. He concentrates the action in the factory workers' living quarters. A shrewish, brittle Madame Hershkovitch brings the cat there and coerces factory engineer David Blaustain to hand it in and share the reward with her. Blaustain, whose pregnant wife is withering from consumption, hopes to pay for an abortion to spare his unborn child its dismal fate. His sister, Anya, wants to trade the cat for forged traveling papers for her brother and herself. Meanwhile Schnur, a middle-aged butcher, teaches 13-year-old Beryl the proper techniques of kosher slaughter even though teaching Jewish law is punishable by death. There's also a patriotic, anti-Semitic German named Krause who insists he's been banished to the factory by mistake (we later learn his grandfather was a Jew).

None of this is in Bryks's story. Wincelberg packs the play with complex moral dilemmas that have a powerful dramatic impact, but it's hard to fathom why he thought he should "improve" the original with new names, new characters, new incidents, and a general exaggeration of the world Bryks experienced firsthand. Krause seems to be based on an unnamed part-Jewish character who makes a brief appearance in Bryks's story offering to cook up the cat for Zabludovitch, but in Resort 76 he wanders in and out of scenes spewing anti-Jewish vitriol. In one indelible moment in the story someone offers Zabludovitch an egg in exchange for the cat--clearly an unimaginable feast in the Lodz ghetto. In Wincelberg's version, Blaustain is tempted with "meat, butter, eggs, fresh fruit. . . . When is the last time you tasted an egg, eh?" What sort of artist thinks a survivor's account needs to be tarted up?

For that matter, how could director Danielle Mari justify the broad-stroked, aggressively false acting of her ten-person cast? Several of the performers demonstrated great subtlety in Infamous Commonwealth's highly praised production of "The Kentucky Cycle" two years ago, but here everyone is squeezing out the melodrama or pushing (believe it or not) for yuks. On one hand, Blaustain's consumptive wife constantly coughs and furrows her brow so we won't forget she's sick; on the other you've got an eccentric resident channeling Seinfeld's Kramer. The first two acts of Resort 76 commit every affront Sontag cautioned against.

In the last of the three acts, following the example set by the unassuming James Dunn as Blaustain, the cast begins to dig a bit deeper into their characters--there's more gravitas, less exaggeration. But it's too little, too late. The stagey indulgence that preceded the shift leaves a dreadful aftertaste.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Resort 76 photo by Allen Rein.

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