Philip Boehm’s Upstream Theatre has given us season after season of truly stimulating plays. Never a pot-boiler, never anything that’s just entertainment, never a show that’s merely enjoyed and then forgotten, never just a plum role for a favorite actor. Boehm’s steady injection of international drama into our theatrical bloodstream is refreshing—even necessary, since despite the occasional British import we Americans are generally blind to anything beyond our borders.
Conversations with an Executioner is set in a cramped Polish prison cell in 1949. Two German S.S. officers, Gen. Stroop and Lt. Schilke, share the cell with a Polish Resistance fighter, Kazimierz Moczarski. Stroop had supervised the massacre of Jews during the Warsaw “Ghetto Uprising”; he has already been sentenced to death at Nurnberg (for an unrelated crime), but has been transferred to Polish jurisdiction for a further trial. Moczarski is being held for his anti-communist activities in this now-Stalinist Poland; unbeknownst to Gen. Stroop, Moczarski had once tried to assassinate him.
These are characters from history; Moczarski documented their shared incarceration in his memoirs, and Philip Boehm has adapted the tale for the stage and directed this production.
As almost always with Upstream the production values are impeccable. Scott Neale’s set is perfection with the theatre walls covered with ragged posters and with an overall sense of persuasive griminess. Properties by Robert van Dillen and costumes by Michele Siler are minutely true to period. Steve Carmichael’s lighting is always effective, never intrusive. And the truly gorgeous accordion music—and occasional song—by Isaac Lifits welcomes the audience—then returns from time to time to draw us into this time and place: “Lili Marlene” and “The Horst Wessel Song” are redolent of German sentiment and patriotism, and several sad and lyrical melodies bespeak the suffering—and spirit—of the Polish people.
Performances are all strong. J. Samuel Davis brings utter commitment to Moczarski in his struggle to explore the mind of the Nazi butcher. Gary Wayne Barker, smooth and confident, convinces us of Stroop’s almost religious belief in the Nazi racial policy. Robert Mitchell is powerful as the brutal prison guard. But for me the finest performance of all is that of John Bratkowski as Lt. Schilke. He’s blessed with a lanky grace and an honest, large-featured dramatic face; he uses these gifts to build a character that’s almost astonishingly true to life.
So it’s a strong production, but there are weaknesses in the play itself. There are myriad touches that give depth of personal history to these men—particularly to Gen. Stroop: his family photos, his traumatic incident with an owl, and so on. But there is little of what some would call a “dramatic arc”. Moczarski presses the general for details about his suppression of the uprising, and boy, do we get details! At times the general’s recitation of specific dates and times and body counts takes on the air of a collection of newspaper clippings or readings from a court reporter’s log. But for most of the audience the Warsaw atrocity is rather old news, and we want it to be put to some dramatic use. Here we get an intense rehearsal of the historical facts, but it has little effect on any of the characters. The author never allows Stroop to question his actions; nor is Moczarski permitted to sense some humanity in Stroop, who remains unrelentingly smug. All we have is a declaration that a bad man did a terrible thing. This may be indisputably true, but it is not ipso facto dramatic. When all the facts have been laid out the play simply ends and the Germans are led off to their fate.
I was also slightly puzzled by the decision to cast black actors as the two Polish characters in the play, while white ones play the Germans. Color-blind casting is perfectly fine in many cases, but is certainly questionable in a piece to which the whole concept of race is so central. I must guess that Mr. Boehm and casting director Carrie Houck were using the actors’ race figuratively—as an indication of a distinction which would be immediately clear to the Nazis, but might not be so to an American audience. But this play is so full of very carefully correct, naturalistic details of period and style and historical fact! Such a step away from realism seems hardly appropriate. And might not the message of the play be better served if it is clear to the audience that there is in fact no noticeable difference between the Germans and the Poles they despise?
But nevertheless it’s a most worthwhile evening—beautifully produced and acted. It’s another feather in the cap of Upstream Theatre. It continues through April 29th.