Mark Jacoby, Sean Hudock, Sophia Blum, Seamus Mulcahy, Carey van
by Julia Polinsky
Vilna! An Eastern European capital of Jewish culture, “owned” in
turn by Lithuania, Germany, Poland... In the 1930s, Vilna was home to 80,000
Jewish residents, and their schools, university, theatres, concert halls,
galleries, all gone in just a few years, when the Nazis took over.
Author Ira Fuchs has tried to tell the huge, terrible story of the
Vilna mass execution, the burial pit outside the city, and the escape tunnel
dug by hand. Somehow, this story from which the stench of evil cannot be
removed, a story that’s hard to be neutral about, becomes complex to the point
Sean Hudock, Seamus Mulcahy
Vilna focuses on Motke Zeidel (Sean Hudrock) and Yudi Farber (Seamus
Mulcahy), two boys who were like brothers, as well as Motke’s father (Mark
Jacoby) and mother (Carey van Driest), and other people who were significant in
the Jewish community, from doctor, to poet/resistance leader, to chanteuse, to
Motke and Yudi barely survived life in the ghetto and the mass
murder of the Jews of Vilna. As adults, they were part of the Judenrat, which
administered the ghetto, tasked with making lists of who dies immediately vs.
who dies eventually. They later become part of the slave labor tasked with
“sanitizing” the site of the massacre, a huge pit filled with bodies that have
been limed, but not burned. Motke and Yudi must move the bodies of their colleagues,
their friends, and, yes, family members, and when they can take no more, they
dig a tunnel by hand, and escape. Should be easy to make that into compelling
theater, no? The story practically tells itself.
Except here. Sitting in the audience for Vilna feels like
attending a history lecture. After the framing-device opening, in which the
ghost of Motke Zeidel addresses the audience directly, Vilna descends
into scene after scene of exposition.
Vilna is a series of incidents, not a play; a number of quick-cuts that
hang together thematically, not a play; a television-influenced, fast paced
docu-drama, not a play; a polemic, an argument, a warning, a political
statement, but not a play. It never arrives at any dramatic urgency, but
instead lists incident after incident. Those incidents themselves are pregnant
with horror and rage, but that’s not enough to make a drama.
The chronology of these incidents is projected against Brittany
Vasta’s scenic design, which provides a useful background, as well as a too
many doorways for tedious number of too-short scenes. I suppose the set does
what it can to mitigate confusion, but when some scenes are so short, and the
actors, most of whom play multiple roles, are moving props and furniture they
just moved moments ago, there’s not much to do except wait it out.
Sophia Blum, Seamus Mulcahy, Sean Hudock Photos by Carol Rosegg
Only four actors have one role each; the other characters are
divided among the rest of the cast, so the sultry Jewish chanteuse of one scene
is the righteous Jewish doctor in the next (Sophia Blum); the Polish Customs
officer is also a Russian commissar and the head of the Jewish police (Patrick
Toon). Excellent performances and first-rate costuming can make an actor’s
multiple roles work. In Vilna that seldom happens; only Nathan Kaufman,
who plays a rabbi and later the ghetto hospital director, really manages two
The hell of it is, you want to like it. You want to feel for these
people in their terrible lives, their terrible dilemmas. How can you not? Yet
Fuchs and director Joseph Discher make a mess of telling a simple story: good
triumphs, in spite of evil. Introducing fifty or so scenes displaying evil
tells us nothing new, and slows the play down. Had the show been tightened to a
core story, instead of flailing off into scene after scene of how bad the Nazis
were, perhaps Vilna might have had a strong impact. As it is, the story
of Vilna gets lost in the telling.
Theatre at St.
46rd St (9th-10th)
Wed, Thurs, Fri, Sat, 7pm; Wed, Sat, 2pm