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King of the Jews

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 28, 2023

Daniel Oreskes, Rachel Botchan, Erica Spyres,
and Richard Topol

Photo by Russ Rowland
Ask yourself, what would you do? What would you do if, like Fraulein Schneider in Cabaret, you were "one frightened voice" trying just to get by in the face of the rising tide of Naziism in Weimer Germany? What would you do if, like Zofia Zawistowski in Sophie's Choice, you had to decide under the most dire of circumstances which of your children to save from certain and immediate death at the hands of the Nazis at Auschwitz? And what would you do if you were in the position of the characters in King of the Jews, the play adapted by Leslie Epstein from his 1979 novel of the same title, opening tonight at HERE Arts Center?

This is the central question to be considered while attending a performance of King of the Jews. The play, which was first produced in 2007, takes place in occupied Poland within the confines of the Astoria Café in Lodz. The actual historical café would soon become part of the Lodz Ghetto in which some 180,000 Jews would be confined within an area of four square kilometers, many to die of starvation or disease, with many more to be sent to die or barely survive in concentration camps.

Out of sight of the audience, unspeakable horrors are unfolding. But more than a horror story, this is a play about ethics, morality, and the personal decisions that the characters must wrestle with while we are in their midst. Bargaining with the devil is not likely to lead to a happy conclusion.

As we enter, we find ourselves in an immersive setting where the play will unfold all around us. We are invited to sit at one of the round tables spread around the room or on one of the wooden chairs along the perimeter of the performance space. All of the characters, save one, are Jews of various backgrounds and occupations. Two are rabbis, one is a comedian, another is a singer, another a doctor. A couple are members of the wait staff or cooks or musicians. Indeed, as we enter, two of these, identified as Jews by the yellow stars they are wearing on their clothing, are performing popular songs from the era on the café's small stage. All of their lives are about to be irrevocably changed.

Ahead of locking the Jewish population of Lodz into what will be a walled-off and heavily guarded ghetto, the Nazis have enlisted the services of a local "Volksdeutscher" as their liaison, Wohltat (Daniel Oreskes, giving a devastating performance as a thoroughly corrupted man devoid of conscience). Wohltat, whose name, incidentally, translates as "good deed," intrudes in order to present the company with one of what will be several of the Nazis' "solutions to the Jewish problem." The denizens of the café will need to form a "Judenrat," a Jewish "Council of Elders" who will be in charge of making all of the internal decisions within the Jewish community. Their word will be law and absolute, a form of self-rule, self-government, and enforcement. Included among their decisions will be identifying which Jews will be subject to "special treatment."

Suddenly, this disparate group is caught in an unfathomable dilemma. To refuse to participate will mean death. To agree will mean, what? Through their arguments and discussions, the play brings out the best and the worst in each of them. Might it be possible to outwit Wohltat and the Gestapo? Can bribes buy lives? Can many be spared, even at the cost of sacrificing some? Can you ever satisfy a hungry wolf?

As an ensemble piece, carefully directed by Alexandra Aron to highlight the nuances, King of the Jews works extremely well in examining the moral ambiguity of those caught in a trap from which there can be no escape. While the novel on which the play is based focuses heavily on the central character of the doctor (here played by Richard Topol), who becomes the self-appointed, mentally unstable and self-justifying head of the Council, the play gives a voice to all of the characters, allowing for a rich thematic complexity.

Perhaps none is more devastating than a young teenage boy (played by Wesley Tiso), whose silence during most of the evening speaks volumes, and whose voice, when he finds it, offers up a vision of hell that silences everyone else.

The rest of the cast are equally excellent here as the members of the Judenrat: Rachel Botchan as a cabaret singer; David Deblinger as a comedian who makes jokes of the gallows humor type about der Fuhrer, referring to him by the code name of "Horowitz"; John Little as an elderly waiter who would willingly sacrifice his own life rather than identify others to be put to death; Allen Lewis Rickman and Robert Zukerman as two argumentative rabbis; JP Sarro as a cook and musician; Dave Shalansky as the proprietor of the café who meets an early and disturbing fate; Jonathan Spivey as a Hungarian furrier and musician who is unexpectedly trapped in Poland owing to the war; and Erica Spyres as a musician who makes a risky trade with Wohltat.

King of the Jews deals with complicated socio-psychological (which is to say, human) issues. If it sometimes veers into the literary abstractions of an allegory or the darkest of satire, the historic truth that underpins it keeps it grounded in its inexorable reality, while the more recent global rise in antisemitism makes it a cautionary tale for our time. What would any of us do in these circumstances? A sobering thought, indeed.

King of the Jews
Through November 18, 2023
HERE Arts Center, 145 6th Avenue
Tickets online and current performance schedule: