Juan Mayorga’s Holocaust-themed “Way to Heaven” is a bold but failed employment of metatheatrical means to unearth a parcel of historical truth. It’s one thing to characterize the appalling deception at Theresienstadt concentration camp as the ultimate role-playing theatrical spectacle. It’s quite another to emphasize the performance metaphor to the exclusion of everything else. In the process, the victims’ horror – genuine suffering, not figurative – is trivialized.
For those with short memories, in 1944 the Nazis famously created a Potemkin village at Theresienstadt in order to mislead Red Cross inspectors about the Jews’ treatment in captivity. Inmates were tidied and dressed up, given jobs and leisure activities, treated to good, plentiful food and told to smile, smile, smile. (To give the impression of spacious barracks, excess camp population was shipped off to Auschwitz.) Film footage to this day serves the noxious purposes of Holocaust deniers.
As Mayorga tells it, the commandant (Norbert Weisser) is a demented impresario who has created not just types, but individualized roles with full pages of dialogue to support them. He obsesses like Max Reinhardt with proper casting and line readings, tapping Gottfriend (Bruce Katzman), the mayor of the inmate population, as reluctant stage manager/facilitator.
“Way to Heaven” downplays or ignores the situation’s specifics, which you’d think would be dramatically fertile enough, in favor of the unenlightening, self-conscious theatrical conceit. We never believe this officer is worried about making just the right impression on the observers, or the consequences if his superiors decide he’s bungled it. He just preens and struts, chortling over this staging coup or fretting about that gesture’s authenticity.
If the mayor is trying to tread a dreaded line between cooperation and contriving the best deal for his people, it’s all in his head, for the portrayal is sheer numbness.
Before the show, audiences are invited to (in essence) assume the Red Cross’s function by exploring the exhibited prison trappings, faithfully re-created by designer Frederica Nascimento.
But when the museum labels are removed, implying we’re about to see the truth behind the artifice, the production merely shifts to another level of artifice. Mayorga has helmer Ron Sossi deploy the inmates as sleepwalking puppets, brainwashed to review their lines over and over until they get the business right.
Following the curtain call come two minutes of the actual propaganda movies, not the wisest choice for an enterprise as abstracted as this one. The heartbreaking images of captives playing out their assigned parts, at once grinning and desperate, merely emphasize the irrelevance of Mayorga’s windy duality-of-theater guff to the genuinely mournful legacy of Theresienstadt.