Among this month's local events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the State of Israel is a pair of thoughtful, Jewish-themed theater productions. Both detail the Nazi oppression of the Jews during World War II, and both are presented by companies funding the shows either with grant money from Jewish organizations or with cash from their own coffers.
Phoenix Theatre's Ghetto is based on actual events and real people in Vilna, Lithuania, in the early 1940s. Set in a small, walled-in ghetto into which Jews have been forced before being shipped off to concentration camps, the play focuses on a theater group created to entertain Nazi commanders.
Director Michael Mitchell has redeemed himself with this production. His last few directing efforts have been awkward near-misses, and his choice of plays (he's the company's artistic director) has resulted in several uneven seasons. But Mitchell's thoughtful staging and talented, hand-picked cast transform David Lan's translation of Joshua Sobol's script into a beautifully bleak evening of theater. Gro Johre's imposing, smoke-choked sets, expertly lighted by lighting designer Paul Black, make each scene look like a frame from a Fritz Lang film. The entire production is sumptuous and scary and is the best work I've seen from this company in three years.
Phoenix Theatre has hired a consultant to assist in marketing the play to the Jewish community, and has augmented the production with several supplemental projects. Cover Them, an exhibit of quilts that commemorate victims of the camps, is displayed in the lobby. The company has prepared a series of question-and-answer sessions about the Holocaust, and has published an eight-page booklet about the camps that it distributes at each performance.
On the other side of town, Scottsdale Center for the Arts is using a small grant from the Jewish Community Foundation to help fund its production of The Gate of Heaven, about a group of Jewish prisoners liberated from a WWII concentration camp by Japanese-American soldiers. Lane Nishikawa co-authored the play with actor Victor Talmadge to honor the relationship between a handful of camp survivors and the Japanese Americans who saved them. "My uncles served in this regiment that freed these Jewish prisoners, while their own people were held in Japanese camps back in the states," Nishikawa says. "This hasn't been documented in theater before. We don't see enough theater of substance about the Jewish plight during the war."
In Phoenix, that's partly because our Jewish theater company isn't wasting its time--or grant money--on producing Jewish plays of substance. On the same night that Ghetto opened at Phoenix Theatre, Arizona Jewish Theatre Company premiered Little Footsteps, an unfunny comedy about a young couple--one of whom is Jewish--who are expecting their first child. The tepid humor relies on dead-baby jokes for laughs, and not even the talented, all-Equity cast can help this joyless, mostly Jewless play.
Little Footsteps' single Jewish character is so removed from his religion that he can't recall the words to the simplest Jewish prayer. He has no family life and is the biggest loser in the play. He finally invokes his Jewish heritage late in the second act as both a pathetic attempt to hold onto his newborn son and as a weapon against his in-laws, whom he says hate him because he's Jewish. The only sympathetic characters in this weary comedy are the Gentiles, who outnumber the Jewish characters three to one.
What's truly confounding is that, while Phoenix Theatre is funding its own production of a meaningful Jewish play, and Scottsdale Center is relying on one teeny grant to bring similar fare to town, our only Jewish theater company is using funds from at least three different sources to present dreck. Monies culled from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Arizona Commission on the Arts, and the Phoenix Arts Commission have been or will be spent to bring us yet another production of Fiddler on the Roof, with which AJTC opened its 10th season this year, and a revival of Social Security, which the company has presented before. (To add further insult, both are being performed by Tempe Little Theater later this season.)
I've carped before about AJTC's choice of plays. But it's especially galling to see our only Jewish company spending heaps of arts-endowment funds on silly sitcoms when non-Jewish companies are presenting culturally rich fare. At the matinee of Little Footsteps I attended, people left in droves at intermission, while the opening-night audience for Ghetto stayed to cheer. I can't sum it up any better than the woman who sat behind me at the AJTC show. As she collected her handbag before exiting after the first act, she said to her seatmate, "For this I left the house today? I should have gone to see that sad play over at the other place."
Ghetto continues through Sunday, November 23, at Phoenix Theatre, 25 East Coronado.
The Gate of Heaven is scheduled to be performed on November 21, 22 and 23 at Scottsdale Center for the Arts, 7380 East Second Street.
Arizona Jewish Theatre Company's production of Little Footsteps continues through Sunday, November 23, in Stage West at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe.
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