Conversations with an Executioner
Also see Richard's review of Exit the King
And while this old gag rarely produces gales of laughter, it neatly summarizes the plight of the failed Polish assassin of our play, played by J. Samuel Davis: jailed behind the Iron Curtain with his former target, a German general played by Gary Wayne Barker, after the second world war. In the most overwhelming scene in this 70-minute play, Barker (as General Stroop) builds toward a fever pitch recounting the Nazi liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto, to a moment of such grand horror that the stage itself becomes a portal to real madness.
The death toll from the massacre is in question, somewhere between 56,000 Poles and 71,000but the single most important casualty to Kazimierz Moczarski (the real-life memoirist of the tale) is that of his murdered brother. And the spectacle of German violence, re-told by the general, along with the cruel absurdity of being trapped in a cell with the slaughter's "maestro," plays across the would-be assassin's face like a million years in Hell.
Unexpectedly, casting runs a close second-place to style in Director/Producer Philip Boehm's visceral adaptation of the Moczarski memoir. Casting and the clipped economy of each performance lend great realism to the whole nightmare. Mr. Davis, who is black, is instantly martyred in the American mind by the German's disdainful, third-class estimations of the Poles. Mr. Barker's General seems to fancy himself the gifted child among imbeciles; and John Bratkowski as a German soldier (also imprisoned) is dour and tough and ultimately honorable. Beyond the perfect "look" of each man, everything they do carries just the right mixture of sentimentality and conviction and brutish contempt.
There is no verbal discussion of Moczarski's particular torture by Stalinist Poles for his wartime resistance, but the insoluble blobs of blood that float around in a wash basin after one of the worst beatings speak loudly enough. Likewise, the nearly silent moment when the general cajoles the soldier into pulling his boots off is similarly expository; as is the strange balletic bit when the Germans pantomime rhythmic horse riding at a perfect intersection of dream and history. It also comes in handy as a reference when Moczarski explains his failed plan to assassinate the general on one of his daily rides.
Respected local producer and director Robert Mitchell lends a hand as a disdainful prison guard, adding lots of hard edges to the play, which generally occupies that twilight of consciousness that all successful Upstream Theater shows somehow seem to find. Off-stage accordionist Isaac Lifits plays music that is at once wistful and ironic and, strangely, quietly danceable, in contrast to the hard realities of a Stalinist prison cell. It reminds us that the real cruelty of prison is how the heart still beats, under the harshest of constraints.
Conversations with an Executioner, adapted by Philip Boehm, continues through April 29, 2012, at the Kranzberg Center's black box theater, 501 North Grand Ave. at Olive, a block south of the Fox Theatre. Just north of the St. Louis University campus, and nearly a mile north of Interstate 64. Local street parking is usually possible along Lindell Blvd. if you arrive by 7:15 or so. For more information visit www.upstreamtheater.org or call (314) 863-4999.
* Denotes member, Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the US.
Photo by Peter Wochniak