It is comforting to believe that we teach history so students will learn from the mistakes of the past. But mostly, the simplified narratives of official history curricula only serve to undergird power: America is a melting pot and land of opportunity; France helped spread the flame of liberty with its international ambitions; Poles played no role in the crimes of the Nazi and Soviet regimes, except as victims and heroic members of the resistance.
Tadeusz Słobodzianek demolishes the latter myth in Our Class, which is now receiving a riveting New York debut with Arlekin Players Theatre, under the banner of the Under the Radar Festival, at BAM. Originally written in Polish, it has been adapted to English by Norman Allen. Simultaneously clear-eyed and harrowing, it benefits greatly from director Igor Golyak’s inventive staging and dynamic performances from the cast, all of whom are tasked with playing their characters from school age all the way through death.
We know when those deaths will occur the moment we enter the theater and see them written on the chalkboard that constitutes the upstage wall of Jan Pappelbaum’s versatile classroom set: Dora (1920-1941), Zocha (1919-1985), Rachelka/Marianna (1920-2002). In the first of several Brechtian flourishes, Golyak ensures that we won’t be surprised when anyone dies, although he cannot preclude our horror at the way they meet their ends.
In the beginning, they’re all classmates in a small town in the East of Poland. About half are Jews, the other half are Catholics. They play soccer together and perform a school pageant in commemoration of the 1935 death of Marshal Piłsudski. In 1939, when the Red Army occupies their town under a secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, some students, like Jakub Katz (Stephen Ochsner), enthusiastically welcome the Communists as liberators from parochial oppression. But the Catholic faithful see things differently. Students like Zygmunt (Elan Zafir, artfully deploying the shit-eating grin that served him so well in Arcadia) and Heniek (typically Will Manning, but played by the impressively off-book and thrillingly committed Ben Evett the evening I attended) see the Jews as collaborators with their Communist oppressors. When the Nazis roll into town in 1941, they exact their revenge.
The first act culminates in a series of brutal crimes based on the Jedwabne pogrom, during which hundreds of Jews were locked in a barn and burned alive. The actors draw faces on several balloons, held down by weights, to represent these victims. In a moment of arresting horror, Golyak directs the cast to bang from behind the chalkboard as Dora (a wraithlike and unnerving cheerful Gus Birney) clips the balloon strings and they float up to the grid, where they remain for the rest of the evening…for the most part.
The second act focuses on how the surviving classmates spend the postwar years, and this is where we see some of the best stage acting on offer in New York: As Menachem, Andrey Burkovskiy transforms from a movie-obsessed teen into a monstrous agent the Polish secret police, hellbent on revenge. Of course, he did spend the war hiding in the pigsty behind the home of Zocha (Tess Goldwyn), a Catholic Pole who hightails it to America as soon as possible (Goldwyn performs a convincing transformation into a garden-variety Jersey grandmother). There she meets Abram (Richard Topol), who emigrated before the war and therefore is this play’s luckiest character. Topol’s recitation of the names of his dead relatives is staggering, and later salved by a similar list that suggests a remarkable American life.
Most extraordinary is the performance of Alexandra Silber as Rachelka, a Jewish girl who manages to survive the pogrom because she is the object of desire for Władek (an appropriately gruff Ilia Volok). He insists she convert and marry him. She agrees. What choice does she have? But Silber makes us feel every bit of the violence of this salvation, just as she makes us understand the mixed emotions the newly christened Marianna feels for her savior/captor husband — and why she chooses to essentially drop out of the 20th century and fight no more. In the final scenes, she settles into the role of an ancient couch potato, a dotty smile plastered over a dark history she would rather forget.
These unforgettable performances are supported by Golyak’s sharp and well-planned production, which begins as a staged reading and imperceptivity develops into a fully engrossing experience. Sasha Ageeva’s costumes cleverly bridge the divide between contemporary streetwear and period clothing. Adam Silverman’s cinematic lighting and Ben Williams’s robust sound design facilitate a play that leaps across oceans and time periods. Andreea Mincic’s chalk drawings chart the history of the 20th century on a blackboard, while Eric Dunlap’s projections make them come alive. It’s impossible to look away from the fast-paced historical drama.
It’s no surprise that Our Class has received pushback from nationalist segments of Polish society. With this honest look at human behavior, Słobodzianek picks at a scab that has, for decades, hardened over a messy truth: Poles were undeniably victimized by the great powers to their east and west; but shrouded in the fog of war, some also committed terrible acts of violence. Participants in that violence can agree to a kind of omertà, but eventually the fog lifts — especially if the whole town bore witness.
As I watched the second act, one of the balloons lost helium and floated down from the grid to hover in front of me, a ghost of the past staring me right in the face. Our Class is a sobering look at atrocity, complicity, and collective amnesia, indisputably human vices that can only be broken by the forceful and repeated presentation of the truth.