by Lynn on November 17, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Great Canadian Theatre Company, Ottawa, Ont. until Nov. 20, 2022.

Written by Darrah Teitel

Directed by Sarah Kitz

Set by Brian Smith

Sound by Olivier Fairfield

Lighting by Seth Gerry

Costumes by Vanessa Imeson

Cast: Aviva Armour-Ostroff

Ori Black

Brittany Kay

Drew Moore

Billie Nell

A play dense with philosophy, political theory, revolution, debate, discussion and unsettling history.

The Story. It’s 1942 in Warsaw, Poland. The occupying Germany army established the Warsaw Ghetto where approximately 500,000 Jews were crammed into a few blocks; 1.3 square miles. Usually there were seven people to a room. There were curfews, rations and starvation. Jews had to wear an identifying arm band. The Judenrat (Jewish Council composed of Jews) governed the Ghetto.  

A group of teenagers gather to discuss their revolutionary plans to disrupt if not destroy the Ghetto. They are: Izzy, the leader of the group; Joshua, a stickler for taking minutes so there would be a record for posterity of what they discussed; Eden, Izzy’s lover; Christian, a Pole though not Jewish, he was devoted to the cause, and also Eden’s lover as well. They would be joined later by Felicia Czeniaków, a rich Jew of Warsaw and the wife of Adam Czeniaków. He was the head of the Judenrat until he committed suicide when he realized his efforts to protect his Jewish people were failing under the Nazi regime. Felicia knew that her husband was to meet these young revolutionaries and she wanted to keep his appointment and continue his work.

Trust was a tricky thing. The young revolutionaries looked askance at Christian because he wasn’t Jewish, and they looked askance at Felicia because she was a rich Jew and really had no connection to their cause and they didn’t trust her husband either. A Jewish Council governing their fellow Jews in the constricted Ghetto with the occupying German Army overseeing everything. Trust was rare.

The Production. Brian Smith designed a set that looks like a stage waiting to be set for a play. There are ladders hanging on a wall up stage. The back wall is fitted like a black chalk board. There are two small square tables downstage with chairs. Upstage is a raised section that has three steps leading up to it. A lit ghost light stands downstage center. So everything about this suggests that a play is to be rehearsed. The play is Forever Young: A Ghetto Story.

When the production begins actors quickly enter the space, set up the tables with papers and props. Someone moves the ghost light ‘off-stage’ (and it will be returned when the production is finished). The set is the only clue that this is a rehearsal.

What is a mystery is who the ‘actors’ are who are performing this rehearsal? Perhaps they are modern “actors’ doing this rehearsal of a play in the 1940s? One actor (Brittany Kay plays Eden) has black hair with green ends….rather modern. One actor (Billie Nell plays Joshua) wears pants with rips in the knees and seem to be connected with chains. Again, modern but still a mystery of why it’s presented as a rehearsal. And for whom are they preparing the production? Us? In Ottawa? There is no one actually leading the rehearsal to give us a clue. Is this idea of setting the play in a rehearsal that of playwright Darrah Teitel? Or the director of the production, Sarah Kitz? A mystery, as I said.

When the ‘production’ does begin, the cast are earnest and committed to the work. During the various committee meetings notes are made on the black board chalk sections listing points of order and argument. One must also assume that actual written minutes etc. are being written on paper because the papers are then stuffed into milk jugs for safekeeping, ready to be buried around the Ghetto so that they can be later found and used as an historical record.

It’s an interesting technique to engage the audience since so much of the play seems to be debate, esoteric political philosophizing and a litany of various movements and organizations, usually spoken by Joshua (Billie Nell) the most earnest of the group and seemingly the most rigid in his thinking. Or perhaps Joshua is just firm in his convictions.

It is amazing to realize that these revolutionaries in the Ghetto were teenagers who were determined to defend their homes and each other. It’s documented that they were successful in causing difficulty for the occupying German troops. Bravo to playwright Darrah Teitel for illuminating that. However, I found that her play got bogged down in rhetoric, the endless debates of points of order and the minutiae of the minutes. Izzy (Ori Black) wanting to move things along. Joshua (Billie Nell) standing firm for a point of order. Eden (Brittany Kay) wanting sex with her boyfriend, Christian, an eager Drew Moore, offered a bit of comic relief.

The production seemed to change and ‘open up’ when Felicia, a vibrant, prickly Aviva Armour-Ostroff, arrived to help out. This was a no-nonsense woman. She had integrity and knew how to argue her points. She knew that the young revolutionaries were suspicious of her because her late husband let the Yudenrat and she was commanding in getting them on her side. These scenes created a sense of drama and tension in the production, where only pedantic musings were before.

Director Sarah Kitz negotiates the cast around the set with efficiency and briskness. We do get the sense of life and death as they hide and plan on disruption. Kitz also creates moments of humour when Eden and Christian, or Eden and Izzy come on to each other for some much needed intimacy. And I loved the subtle inclusion of various versions of the song: “Forever Young.” The bitter-sweet reference though is that those young people in the Ghetto died in their teens and therefore would be forever that age.

Playwright Darrah Teitel adds a coda to the end of the play in which the cast add information about the play. The play is based on a small book (60 pages) entitled: The Ghetto Fights by Marek Edelman who was the last surviving member of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Darrah Teitel wanted the audience to know that the play and the dialogue are the result of her imagination. And while there might be those in the audience who might be knowledgeable about that time in history and take exception to what is in the play and how she dealt with it, they can ‘back off.’ Ok. But, really? That has to be explained to an audience in 2022, that it’s a play, a creation of imagination and of course the dialogue is made up.

Comment. For my concerns about this dense play, I’m glad I ventured to Ottawa to see it. It’s a fascinating, difficult point in history and I’m grateful to Darrah Teitel for pricking my curiosity to seek out Marek Edelman’s book and see where she started in her journey to write the play.  

Great Canadian Theatre Company presents:

Plays until: Nov. 20, 2022

Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission.

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