When Poland is invaded by the Russians and then the Germans, pre-existing fears are heightened, extreme paranoia grows, and allegiances are misaligned over and over. In one small town, friends turn on friends, neighbors are pitted against neighbors, and school- yard bullying escalates into a horrific and unbelievable massacre.
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One of the purposes of theater is to open our eyes to things we may or may not want to see. Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company does a brilliant job of this with Our Class. There are no easy answers to the questions regarding the horrors of war. Otherwise, the threats of war and genocide would not continue throughout the world today. Ask the questions anyway. The truth may come out eventually, and some horrors might be averted.
OUR CLASS was written by Polish born and raised playwright, Taduesz Slobodzianek, who won the Nike literary award for the Best Book of the Year in Poland. The English adapter, Ryan Craig, writes for television, radio, and theater. Our Class is based on the massacre of Jews that took place in Jedwabne and Radzilow by their Polish neighbors, not the invading troops of the Russians or the Germans during WWII. In 2001, Jan Gross also wrote the book Neighbors based on reports by a few survivors as to what really happened decades earlier.
Miriam Monasch, director, has a brilliant cast: Gabriele Angieri, Candace Barrett Birk, Caleb Carlson, Michael Jurenek, Robert Larsen, David McMenomy, George Mueliner, Maggie Bearmon Pister, and Walter Weaver. The play opens in a school, where half the students are Jewish and the other half are Catholic. They seem somewhat oblivious, yet also aware, of these differences. Fears escalate and innocence disappears. Friendships of youth are replaced my mob mentality and the instinct to survive.
Although the play takes place from 1925-2003, Lisa Conley, Costume Designer, chose to have the cast wear costumes reflective of the age when each person died. The time of death is represented by a small, yet powerfully symbolic change of a different costume piece for each character.
Dan Wood, Scenic Designer, adapts the school house set with the aid of the actors to farm houses, the town square, the barn used for the massacre, NYC, a church, hidden conversations, and the truth revealed. Jennifer DeGolier, Lighting Designer, does the same by transcending time and space, and evoking emotions with simple yet effective lighting. Todd Edwards, Sound Designer provides light- hearted, yet eerie, reinforcement of the actions on stage as well as sound effects that commingle with the reactions of audience members.
Our Class is the first production of MJTC’s 17th Season. The show runs through November 20, 2011. Post-show audience discussions include the following: A personal account of growing up, hiding and surviving WWII by Lucy Smith, local artist and resident, following the October 30th 1pm performance. Actors will talk about working on the production after the November 5th performance. Leah Albersheim, Ph.D. and Ruth Hornstein, PSYD, will discuss human behavior and how people can turn on neighbor and friends after the November 13th performance.
In closing, I would like to state that I first fell in love with the work done by MJTC when I saw Old Wicked Song. I have tried to attend their productions whenever possible. Theirs is not typically lighthearted comedy. However, there are times you might be drawn to tears and laughter because of the absurdities of life. One of the most heart wrenching and humbling experiences is being a non-Jew witnessing the raw emotions of presumably Jewish audience members. Such is the power of brilliantly produced and emotionally moving live theater.
One thing I would like to make perfectly clear is that MJTC produces shows that everyone should see whenever possible. The universal is in the particular, and the particular transcends any nationality, faith, ethnicity, or differences in the universal experiences of humanity. As MJTC’s Mission Statement states, “Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company ignites the hearts and minds of people of all cultural backgrounds by producing theater of the highest artistic standards. Rooted in Jewish content, our work explores differences, illuminates commonalities, and fosters greater understanding among all people.”
For more information about Our Class, or for information about future productions including The Magic Dreidels by local playwright Jenna Zark, My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding by David Hein and Irene Carl Sankoff, and The Last Word by Oren Safdie, please contact www.mnjewishtheatre.org, or call 651-647-4315. Season Passbooks are still available.
Support your local theaters! They support you!
© Marie G. Cooney on November 4, 2011