Barefoot Theater Company begins a three-month, three-play celebration of scribe Israel Horovitz by staging his play “Lebensraum,” a fable which examines the Holocaust but takes the less traveled road by exploring how that atrocity still echoes through modern Jewish and German communities. The inventive, at times almost whimsical, production invigorates the difficult subject without belittling or simplifying it.
Still, there’s a contradiction between the script’s subject and its approach. On the one hand, the multiple, interconnected stories are punctuated by observations that the Holocaust has become “distant, abstract, (and) impersonal” in contemporary culture. Horovitz argues that codifying Nazi violence in films and history classes dulls the horror, and the lessons of the Holocaust could be forgotten if they get robbed of their urgency.
Yet “Lebensraum” is designed to make us feel safe. It’s an enjoyable evening in the theater, which would seem to make it part of the problem.
To begin with, the entire plot sounds like a fairy tale. After having a prophetic dream, a fictional German chancellor invites 6 million Jews to move back to Germany to “replace” those killed by the Nazis. But when the “new citizens” arrive, the country explodes with anger, grief and shame. The nation’s feelings are depicted via characters whose lives overlap with a symbolic resonance only found in fiction.
For instance, an American Jewish dockworker (T. Ryder Smith) moves his son and Christian wife to Germany, only to become the national face of the homecoming project. He’s given a job on a dock, which incenses the unemployed natives. One local man — portentously, he’s also a dockworker and also played by Smith — leads a protest that turns violent, and both the American and the German reveal vicious prejudices.
Meanwhile, their children meet at a bus stop and fall innocently in love. Metaphors abound. Although the cleverness of Horovitz’s story can be appreciated, his structural choices are too obvious. It’s hard to be moved by something so clearly contrived.
Horovitz adds more emotional distance by using a narrator. Three actors play every role, and one of them is constantly stepping out of character to relate things like: “They hated each other” or “Not everyone in Germany was smiling.” With the tension described instead of performed, it becomes exactly what the play criticizes — distant, abstract, and impersonal.
However, the production does have an engaging theatrical imagination. In an effective device, once actors use a prop, they hang it on the set’s bare wooden walls or leave it on the stage floor. Smith sometimes becomes the chancellor by sticking his head through a portrait with the face cut out. It reminds us that even cultural healing can be a phony political act.
There’s also a plaster mask representing a man who gets killed at a rally to insist that loss will always litter the world.
Intellectually, it’s exciting to watch these trinkets fill the theater. Each pulses with individual meaning, and together they display the Holocaust’s continuing power.
The cast leaps quickly from role to role, able to give each character a distinct voice and posture. Esther Arroyo’s costumes enhance their work by letting one expressive item — a girlish headband, a weather-beaten cap — reflect a character’s life.
Director Jonathon Rest gives a relaxed pace to each scene, so that the actors have time to savor the detail in Horovitz’s writing. This is not a collection of archetypes, but a stage full of specific characters who also have symbolic heft. There may be too many barriers to let the show pierce the heart, but there’s still value in such an accomplished display of artistic intelligence.