New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Ethnic Theater - Jewish

"Way to Heaven"
Teatro Circulo, Manhattan

Is there yet one more strong statement to be made about the Holocaust—and to be made theatrically? Yes, indeed there is, as Juan Mayorga’s “Way to Heaven” indicates.

Mayorga, a noted Spanish playwright, has gained international acclaim with this piece about the Theresienstadt concentration camp. And now New Yorkers are indeed fortunate to experience the play, as it explodes on the off-Broadway stage (Teatro Circulo). One can hardly say “enjoy,” as viewing “Way to Heaven” is devastating.

Need we remind readers that Theresienstadt is a particularly ironic, savage and incredible aspect of the Holocaust? The Nazis set up this Czech concentration camp as a “model village” for Jews, to prove to the world how thoughtfully and creatively they were solving the “Jewish problem.” It is true that prominent Jewish artists, writers, scientists, diplomats, musicians and scholars were imprisoned there—and they did manage to organize their own cultural activities within the camp. But dire circumstances--conditions of overcrowding, overwork, starvation, random cruelty, and disease--did prevail, causing as many deaths as the trips to Auschwitz and the on-site murders.

When Red Cross workers were expected for a visit, the Nazi leaders rushed about, creating a fake façade. Suddenly there was a school, a synagogue, a soccer playing field, a town square, shops and cafes. Jews (children among them) were rehearsed for their roles. Red Cross workers were more or less fooled and never discovered the true conditions.

Such is the stuff of the Mayorga drama. The Nazi Commandant, on learning of an impending Red Cross visit, summons a rabbi, forcing him to cast the players from among the Jewish inmates. On stage, to deceive the visitor, is a small girl talking to her doll, two boys vying for a top, a young couple planning their future, a balloon vender. The Commandant rails at them, because he feels they do not know how to act.

It is all fake, fake, as Jews are routinely brought to the camp and sent straight to the gas chambers (the “infirmary”). That route from depot to “infirmary” is dubbed “the way to heaven,” as indeed it is. The trains arrive promptly at 6 a.m. each morning, but the prisoners on display never see the new arrivals. Even as they rehearse, they wonder about the trains which come and go.

Later statistics will indicate that of some 144,000 Jews sent to the camp, about 33,000 died there and 88,000 were deported to their deaths in Auschwitz and other camps. At war’s end, about 17,000 inmates survived. And of the 15,000 children living in the children’s home within the camp, only 93 survived.

This strong off-Broadway production, stripped to the essentials, tells the story—and tells it devastatingly. Under the direction of Matthew Earnest (and with a translation from the Spanish by David Johnston), the excellent cast brings this horror story to life. No one of us viewing the Mayorga drama can forget the past. It is happening all over again.

-- Irene Backalenick
May 18, 2009

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