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Theatre of Cruelty: “Our Class” received

Our Class, by Polish playwright Tadeusz Slobodzianek, starts off innocently enough: The actors take the stage, scripts in hand, and, with the house lights up, introduce themselves as grade schoolers in a small Polish town. Audiences will wonder whether these actors are even going to be off book.

Three hours later, however, there will be no doubt about their level of commitment. And no one – not even those audience members – will emerge feeling completely innocent.

Inspired by a real pogrom in Jedwabne, the show, adapted by Norman Allen from Catherine Grovesnor’s literal translation (which premiered in London in 2009 and now makes a long-awaited New York debut at Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the Under the Radar festival) follows ten classmates – five Jewish and five Catholic – through the years. One, Abram (Richard Topol), left in 1937 for New York, where he became a rabbi, but the others stayed put.

From the outset, one can see the antisemitism that will pervade their lives. For example, the pious Heniek enters bearing an oversized cross, saying, “Dear classmates, by orders of our esteemed minister of education it’s time to lift up in prayer the creed of our one true faith. Which means it’s time for our Jewish friends to remove themselves to the back of the classroom.” Before long, the Catholic boys beat up their friend Menachem and steal his bicycle.

At the end of the decade, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact puts this town under Russian control. Hopes are high, symbolized by the opening of a new cinema, the Aurora. (Menachem, its manager, exclaims. “I declare an to the era of boredom!”) And, as the Catholic Wladek tells Menachem (Andrey Burkovskiy), a new equality rules: “No more prejudice. A Jew and a Pole can sit down over a couple of beers. Have a dance. And no one cares.”

The dream quickly sours, however: The nationalized mill fails, citizens are recruited to inform on one another, and dissenters are made to disappear. Soon, a local resistance forms, but it is less than effective. In one especially chilling sequence, young Rysiek, one of the fighters, is dragged into the countryside by the NKVD (the Russian secret police) and made to dig his own grave before an officer says, “I don’t think we’ll shoot you today.” Urging Rysiek to admit his subversive activities, he says, “You’ve already dug your pit. It’s just waiting for you.”

Minimally staged but rigged for maximum impact, Slobodzianek builds to a pivotal day in 1941. Alliances form as the two sides start to split. The Christian Poles team with the Nazis and hostilities come to a head in 1941 when all of the town’s Jews – 1600 of them – are rounded up and locked into a barn which is set ablaze.  when inhabitants of a Polish village killed hundreds of Jews. Afterward, the perpetrators claimed the Nazis were to blame for the massacre, a charade that went on for decades.

The material ensures several standouts among director Igor Golyak’s winning ensemble: Gus Birney as Dora, holding on to her dignity even when pawed at by thugs; Alexandra Silber as Rachelka, who endures a horrific wedding night as part of a necessary Faustian bargain; Burkovskiy as Menachem, growing more brutal with the years; José Espinosa as Rysiek, willing to pay the ultimate price for love; Tess Goldwyn as Zocha, also doing what she must to move forward; Will Manning as Heniek, on whom the Catholic Church constantly has eyes; Stephen Ochsner as Jakub, a nightmarish prophet of sorts; Ilia Volok as Wladek who, assaulted by memories, drifts into a decades-long vodka fog, emerging at last to tell the truth; and Elan Zafir as Zygmunt, who knows how to cast his past in a different light in order to shine.

Our Class truly does cast humanity in all its extremes, from the most benign to the worst of evil. Jan Pappelbaum’s scenic design, which builds doors into an upstage wall of blackboard, allows Golyak to create horrific and in many ways, death-defying images. Consider Dora and Menachem hiding out, lying precariously along the netting catwalk over the stage. This show is a real balancing act, and it never falls.

Our Class
BAM Fisher Theater
www.bam.org