After the horrors of the Holocaust, would significant numbers of Jews move to Germany? Actually, Russian, Israeli and American immigrants have already swelled the current Jewish population of Germany to about 250,000. What if the German Chancellor were to invite six million Jews from around the world to settle there around the year 2000 with the promise of jobs and reconciliation? Would Jews embrace the project as a genuine effort at restitution or see it as a trap to finish the Nazis’ “Final Solution”? Would ordinary Germans support the offer in the spirit of dialogue or resort to violent prejudice and anti-Semitism again? Israel Horovitz created such a fantasy scenario and examined these responses in his provocative 1997 drama “Lebensraum,” now in a powerful revival as the debut production of the new Hub Theatre Company of Boston (through April 14).
The clever title—German for ‘living space’—simultaneously alludes to Hitler’s diabolical plan to make room for Aryans by annihilating Jews (over half a million German Jews alone in the Six Million who perished) and the fictional Chancellor Rudolph Stroiber’s invitation to reestablish Germany’s Jewish community. While some Germans applaud ‘Project Homecoming,’ others revert to stereotyping—fearing that Jews will take away all of their jobs and romance their daughters. Jews are equally split. Even Holocaust survivors divide between those who distrust any efforts at redeeming Germany and those who will never forget but struggle to forgive. At the same time, some Israelis set up a preparatory group in Germany to defend against any further annihilation efforts.
While Horovitz employs a cast of characters number around 50 to reflect the full spectrum of views, the arrival of the Gloucester Linskys (theater buffs know that the playwright—founder and former artistic director of the Gloucester Stage Company bases many of his plays there) at Bremerhaven adds importantly to both conflicts and relationships between Jews and non-Jews. Mike Linsky, out of work for nearly three years at home, becomes a kind of poster boy successful dockworker. German Gustav Giesling not only distrusts Jewish workers like Mike but also opposes his fair-minded daughter Anna’s relationship with Mike’s son Sam. Sam and Anna’s Romeo and Juliet-like love stands as a sign of the possibilities of human understanding, but the tensions in the air around them do not bode well for their romance.
Another pivotal story line involves the return of Holocaust survivor Maximilian Zylberstein. Zylberstein means to take revenge on informing former neighbor Esla Kreibs for the death of the rest of his family and the destruction of their home. Will Zylberstein actually confront Kreibs? Will he kill her? A large puppet of the bed-ridden neighbor—one of many vivid designs by Paul Ezzy—adds a strikingly surreal quality to this part of the narrative and the unusual but very fitting manner of Zylberstein’s revenge. There are also two hand puppets representing a pioneer gay Jewish couple that German officials oppose due to their sexual orientation.
Under the strong direction of co-founder and gifted out actor John Geoffrion (brilliant as Oscar Wilde in Bad Habits Productions’ benchmark revival of “Gross Indecencies”), a crack trio-James Carrillo, Lauren Elias and Kevin Paquette smoothly and convincingly pull off the many swift character changes. Carrillo captures Mike Linsky’s broad optimism and Gustav Giesling’s lethal hatred. Elias finds non-Jewish Lizzy Linsky’s pride in her husband and son (whom she and Mike have raised Jewish) and evokes Anna’s eagerness to learn more about Jews as well as her growing feeling for Sam. Paquette is very affecting recalling best friend grandfather Nathan to Anna and equally moving as survivor Jacob Brontheim, who emotionally describes watching the vicious killing of his family.
Credit costumer designer Cara Chiaramonte and Ezzy- doubling as prop designer—for accessories and frames with attached outfit pieces that actors alternately wear in portraying leaders, clergy, television personalities, teachers and the other characters ranging from America and Germany to Israel and Australia. Michael Clark Wonson’s nuanced lighting reflects the contrasting hope, despair, tranquility and unrest informing the lives of Jews and non-Jews alike in the play.
Horovitz’s thoughtful play may sometimes suffer from too much narration despite its rightly brief length (90 minutes with no intermission). Still, “Lebensraum”—especially thanks to the tight work of the first-rate Hub Theatre Company threesome—remains a resonant call for understanding and dialogue even as it reminds audiences that “Never Again!” is every one’s responsibility.
Lebensraum, Hub Theatre Company of Boston, performance space at First Church in Boston, 66 Marlborough St., Boston, through April 14.Tickets (Pay-What-You-Can at all performances) at hubtheatreboston.org.
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