by Marilyn Lester
From the outset, the thematic impact of Jubilee is in your face: in a cemetery along the Rhine, the neo-Nazi, Juergen (David Knowle), spray paint in hand, is seen defacing Jewish graves. His actions are quick, purposeful, and outrageous – but outrage is the point. And so is shock, as the dead rise from their graves in response to Juergen’s hateful act of maliciousness. Jubilee is one of several Holocaust plays written by George Tabori, a Hungarian-born Jew whose work took him to several ports of artistic call, including the United States. Tabori finally settled in Germany, becoming a renowned and popular playwright there. Jubilee was commissioned by the town on Bochum, Germany in 1983 to mark the 50-year anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. If this circumstance is an irony, so is much of Tabori’s body of work, which was much focused on themes of anti-Semitism. Jubilee is an absurdist play, a so-called black comedy, wryly witty and slyly droll.
The conceit of Jubilee is, like Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, a testimony of the dead compelled to relive and recite their various stories. The musician, Arnold (G.W.Reed), his wife, Lotte (Cordis Heard), and their spastic niece, Mitzi (Andrea Lynn Green), victims of the Holocaust, lie in rest with the Gentile hairdresser, Otto (Jeff Burchfield) and his husband-wife, Helmut (Derrick Peterson). Helmut, who we learn is a suicide, is mystified that the once sweet and tender child, Jeurgen, took such a terrible turn to hatefulness. As with Masters’ work, the stories are intertwined. Yet, in Jubilee, the tales are often confusing; shifting time lines and slight alterations in each character’s story lead to a bafflement that Tabori clearly intended. There’s much to sort out in Jubilee. There is symbolism: the recurrence of the long black leather coat first seen in Juergen’s entrance. There is Tabori’s appreciation of Jewish humor: as the ghosts emerge from their graves, observing Juergen’s desecrations, they comment on his “work.” “‘Damn Jew’ is spelled with an “a,” young man,” one of them advises. “The swastika isn’t right either. There’s a tail missing on the upper left,” admonishes another. There is the oft-repeated self-deriding joke: “How do you fit 20 Jews in a Volkswagen?” a character asks before delivering the punch line: “Two in front, three in the back and the rest in the ashtray.” By design, these elements may or may not add up. Jubilee is more often than not a pastiche, a collection of memories (which in themselves may be unreliable) about events mostly defined by hatefulness, toward not only Jews, but towards others considered subhuman, such as the homosexuals Otto and Helmut.
Jubilee is also not without it’s allusions. Late in the play, the gravedigger, Wumpf (Robert Eigen) enters, who, with Jeurgen parodies Hamlet. When Jeurgen picks up a skull to examine it, it’s not Yorick’s but Mitzi’s, who Jeurgen has driven to commit suicide. The ghost of Arnold’s father appears (another nod to Hamlet), offering challah to his son, echoing an earlier scene in which Arnold, in an exchange with Helmut says, “Just last week I read in the newspaper that at Auschwitz they baked bread and not fathers.” Challenged by Helmut, who calls this lie filth, Arnold rejoinders, “Filth can be truth. Let’s suppose it’s true filth, the filthy truth, but every night I pray that they only baked bread there.” Jubilee is a complex work and often a talky one. It’s the kind of play that demands much from its ensemble of actors. While this cast attacked the piece with competence, the high-energy fierceness required to make Jubilee truly effective was lacking. The shining light of the production is Green, whose Mitzi is played with nuance and poignancy. At the climax of Jubilee it falls to her to deliver the one-two punch as she relates the fate of young children murdered by the Nazis. Her wrenching performance, within a neatly directed scene, capture’s Tabori’s intent as a playwright. Like Brecht, he never pointed fingers, but wanted his audiences to think about what they’d seen and question themselves in relation to it. Green, of all the cast, was most able to fulfill Tabori’s purpose.
The final scene of Jubilee fulfills the play’s title and the double meaning of the word, “jubilee” as both a commemoration and a festival. The challah bread offered by the ghost of Arnold’s father becomes the sacred host of a Last-Supper. This is an act – of Jews engaging in a Christian ritual – incomprehensible to Jeurgen. In response, Arnold, who has the first line of Jubilee, and also this very last, delivers a wicked double entendre. “We’re a funny people,” he says, as the light fades to black.
Director for Jubilee is Manfred Bermann. Original music is by Stanley Walden, with set design by Mar Urrestarazu, lighting design by Alexander Bartenieff, sound design by Cliff Hahn and costumes by Sarah Zinn.
Jubilee plays in repetory with George Tabori’s Mein Kampf. May 10 through 13 at 8 pm, May 20 at 3 pm and 8 pm and May 21 at 3 pm
Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, 212-254-1109, www.theaterforthenewcity.net
Photos: Michael E. Mason