Ethnic Theater - Jewish
78th Street Theatre Lab, Manhattan
Playwright Catherine Filloux has woven the history of genocide around the true story of one man, Rafael Lemkin. Lemkin was a Polish Jew whose entire family was wiped out in the Holocaust. He himself would go on to become a lawyer of international law, and it was at the Nuremburg trials that he coined the term genocide.
Filloux goes well beyond the Holocaust, to make the point that man’s cruelty to man, on a mass scale, has gone on for a very long time indeed. But it took one man to finally give it a name—and to spearhead the fight for an international law which recognizes and condemns the phenomenon.
The play attempts to cover genocide’s history, from A to Z. It is an ambitious, and ultimately impossible, goal. The result is that “Lemkin’s House” is all over the lot, as it jumps from ancient to modern times, from living to dead heroes, from Asia to Africa to Europe. Lemkin moves through it all, as he meets victims of Ruanda, Bosnia, Nazi Germany. And the theme winding through the story is his battle (which he ultimately wins) to make genocide an international crime recognized by all countries. His great victory comes when the United States ratifies the law in 1988, making it the 19th country to do so.
Not only is “Lemkin’s House” scattershot, but it fails to have an arc that builds in intensity. The problem is that Lemkin is already dead when the play opens, and one can hardly identify with a dead hero, or wonder what his fate will be. It is a looking-backward tale.
Yet there are powerful moments in several of t he staccato scenes, as when a Tutsi woman gives birth or when a Bosnian woman submits to rape. And the production, under Jean Randich’s direction is remarkably intense and personal on the pocket-size off-Broadway stage. John Daggett gives a sharp, edgy performance in the title role, well supported by the four other actors, who play numerous roles. Christopher Edwards is chilling as a militiaman, and equally strong in other roles, and Connie Winston is memorable as the woman of Ruanda.
While “Lemkin’s House” fails, it fails in grand style, and the playwright and company must be commended for making the attempt to lay it all out. Genocide is apparently not a one-time deviation, a shameful moment in European history, but, rather, a menace that is always with us. It is well to be reminded that the menace exists.
-- Irene Backalenick
Feb. 26, 2006