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An otherwise sure-footed production of Lebensraum suffers from the "curse of topicality"

Lebensraum--the German word for "living space"--was the name given Germany's dreams of expansion in the 19th and 20th centuries. In the 1930s and '40s, the Nazi government used the concept to justify conquering and annexing surrounding countries during the Second World War. Since Germany needed more living space, raw materials, food, and better national security, they had the right, the rationale went, to take it from their weaker neighbors. And since, in the final analysis, there wasn't enough living space for all, some people had to go.

It's hard to image a more loaded term for the title of Israel Horovitz's controversial 1996 play, an extended speculation on a theme of German reparations: What if the German government decided to atone for the Holocaust by inviting 6 million Jews back to live in Germany? What if millions took them up on the offer?

In its brisk, documentary-style format, Horovitz's script plays out different scenarios of humor, horror, love and justice, but with a technical twist. In Lebensraum, Horovitz has three performers play over 40 different characters, an acting challenge comparable to Anna Deavere Smith's multi-character accomplishments in Twilight and Fires in the Mirror. In scope and subject matter, Horovitz's fictitional script mimics Smith's compelling nonfiction accounts of urban unrest.

In many ways, this sure-footed Raleigh Ensemble Players presentation is an optimal production. Director C. Glen Matthews efficiently mediates the rapid, jagged polyrhythms of this theatrical scherzo, as if born to. While there's no shortage of help, the strong characterizations of actors David Henderson, Betsy Henderson and Ben Tedder ultimately spring from an equally strong director's vision.

The actors don't use costumes to physically distinguish between their radically different characters. Instead, they change shoes; and two characters (out of 43) wear a hat. Designer Miyuki Su's movable set is divided by meridians made of shoes--nearly a hundred pairs by evening's end. The actors step into and out of them as they go from scene to scene. Of course the shoes are much more than a technical staging device; more on that in a moment.

Inevitably, some characters are more well-defined than others, and occasionally we sense the actors start to run out of options. But David Henderson contrasts the boundless good will of Professor Spretz with the narrow pragmatism of Gustav Giesling, a Bremerhaven dockworker, before a bravura solo sequence where he plays two contentious old Jewish men, Axel Rosensweig and Maximillian Zylberstein, aided only by a repeated change of hats.

Ben Tedder displays gratifying development in his work here as a Donahue-like talk show host, and a member of a new Jewish Resistance. But his strongest work comes as Sammy, the teenage son of two working-class "new citizens." During the play, Sammy morphs from a sullen hip-hop wannabe to an awkwardly beautiful kid finding out about first love and loss.

Betsy Henderson plays Sammy's girlfriend, Anna Giesling, with spontaneity, shyness and joy--a marked contrast from the other characters Betsy inhabits, like Linsky's wife and the talk show guest who responds to a statement about Germany's shameful past with two telling words: "What shame?"

In short, here is a play with strong acting, genuinely insightful direction, and thoughtful design. Why then was I so furious at the end of it?

Plays change. So does the world. Generally, we don't hold a playwright responsible for historical circumstances that occur after a play was written. And regional productions have been blindsided by current events on more than one occasion. Cat's-Paw, William Mastrosimone's harrowing play about terrorism put on last fall at Deep Dish Theater, radically changed in significance between the first week of the show--on Sept. 6--and the show's second week, after the atrocities of Sept. 11. Before that was Burning Coal Theater Company's ambitious, sprawling production of David Edgar's political drama Pentecost. As the last show of the season, it had been chosen for production nearly a year before its opening in June 1998. European unrest was not in the news when it was chosen. But by the time Pentecost opened, the ethnic cleansing in Edgar's script was being horribly duplicated in real time on the streets of Kosovo.

At the time, I wrote that world events had given Pentecost "the curse of topicality." It's unfortunate that a similar curse now besets an exceptional production of Lebensraum. It is a curse that calls into question what constructive purpose the work can presently serve in a far too troubled world. In this production, the rows of empty shoes stand in for the ones who are not present, and who cannot be. They evoke the piles of shoes witnesses found in concentration camps at the end of World War II. I thought it would be a useful exercise to try to visualize the people who originally filled those shoes. Some of the missing, in my imagination, were Palestinian. If this thought is truly taboo in terms of this production, something is desperately wrong on the planet where it occurs.

Presently the world is focused on a conflict in the Middle East, one that at least in part appears to center on the very issue of "living space." As so many others have before them, two peoples try to work out their ideas of manifest destiny on bitterly contested ground. We watch as violence begets violence and ruin radiates from a repeatedly bombed-out epicenter. It's a world almost entirely removed from the moral certainties of Horovitz's script. It is hard not to conclude that current events have fundamentally outstripped it. Days after allegations of atrocity come to us from Jenin, it's interesting to hear an actor on a stage say, "We've killed your leader and we will kill any man, woman or child who shows us a gun, a knife or even an angry word! The victim-Jews of the past are dead! We are the new Jews of the world, and if you threaten us, we will kill you without a moment's hesitation!"

In the deepening shadows of Jerusalem, Ramallah and the West Bank, it's interesting to hear an actor say, "It is a time to understand what has passed, to join hands, and to move forward, to forgive, and to never forget."

While I do believe the words "Nimmer wieder--Never again," which were also spoken on the REP stage, still apply in the present situation, I have the impression that they mean something different when I say them than when the characters onstage did.

There are a number of traps in the world. Three involve self-righteousness, ghastly moral certitude and the inability to focus on any story other than the one in which we are perpetually the heroes--or the victims. I fear that Lebensraum, nearly blind to the present circumstances as it is, easily caters to all of these. Its message is potent, and certainly well-enacted here. But Lebensraum's message is fundamentally the wrong one for our time. Would that it were otherwise. EndBlock

Contact Byron Woods at

byron@indyweek.com

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