LIFE AND DECEIT, NOT SO BEAUTIFUL OR FUNNY, IN A CONCENTRATION CAMP
by Cindy Pierre
published May 15, 2009
Way to Heaven
now playing Off Broadway at Teatro Circulo
through May 24
The world's many religions may each claim a different way to get to heaven – if they incorporate the concept of heaven at
all – but Juan Mayorga's Way to Heaven definitely ranks up there as one of the most sobering and
thought-provoking visions. In it, Mayorga uses the true story of the Theresienstadt concentration
camp – where the Nazis tried to cover up the atrocities by building and presenting a fake village – as a springboard to discussing the
Holocaust in an unconventional but compelling way. The depictions here may not be gruesome, but
they will affect you psychologically nevertheless. Yet, while you may be prepared for some of the
events, there are others that are unpleasantly unpredictable.
Way to Heaven begins with a simple bed of leaves that communicates the scarcity of the times, but
does nothing to appeal to our sense of aesthetics. We expect that there won't be any bells and
whistles for the visuals, but unfortunately, the dullness of the opening scene is disappointing. As the Red Cross Representative recalling his
experiences of the false camp years after it disbanded, Shawn Parr delivers a monologue that goes on far too long, with nothing but his bare
feet treading on the crisp leaves to slice through the boredom. Parr comes alive at the end with
anguish over not seeing anything out of place, but it's not worth the wait. Luckily, the show
revs up in scene two with a confounding (but entertaining) time warp.
While you're trying to piece together what is happening, Patrick Johnson's authentic costumes and Matthew Earnest's bold
direction engages you in a new but better world experientially and chronologically. Lines and
actions will be repeated several times before you realize that the show has taken a leap backward in time to demonstrate the events that
transpired before the first scene. Utilizing the “play within a play” format, the show becomes
a series of rehearsals of a long-running show developed by the Commandant (Francisco Reyes) and Gershom Gottfried (Mark Farr) in which
Jewish prisoners play the parts of well-adjusted, happy individuals that the Red Cross Representative runs into during his inspection of the
town. Though the scene changes are cloddish and Derek Wright's lighting changes are sometimes
as sharp as a needle, you'll want to give these elements the benefit of the doubt by chalking it up to a lack of adequate theatrical
resources at a concentration camp. Ahem.
Although the scenes between the Commandant and Gottfried, chosen to play the Mayor and subsequently lead everyone into the
lie, are chilling, they are written exceptionally well and performed well to boot. Reyes'
Commandant is a goofy Nazi that makes you smile during his monologues one minute, and turns into a believable, dishonest politician the
next. He pressures Gottfried to participate with a light hand by explaining the merits of their
project in one breath while punctuating his speeches with lines like “as long as we are here, we are not on that train. It's an experiment, see” that persuade him to keep up the charade in the next breath. And Farr's Gottfried is a wonderfully sympathetic character that is heroic in his own right, saving as many
people for the “play” as he can to prevent them from going to the Infirmary, the place where they would meet their death and their ultimate
way to heaven.
Even with a sluggish start, Way to Heaven is a powerful and clever look at the
horrors of the Holocaust. This understated, indirect portrayal of the Holocaust employs the
powers of suggestion rather than graphic stories to pull you in, but the effects are just as strong. This may not be a way to heaven that you're comfortable or familiar with, but the lessons learned here about
living out of fear and making a stand are worth stepping out of your comfort zone.
cindypierre @ stageandcinema.com
all photos are by NestorCD.com