Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski
Also see Patrick's recent review of Two Trains Running
Despite its opening in December, Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski is by no means a light holiday diversion. But it has its own powerful message which, given the current political climate, is more needed than it's been in decades.
If you've never heard of Jan Karski (as I hadn't), he was a Polish soldier, resistance fighter, diplomat and, after World War II, professor at Georgetown University. During the war, Karski fought the Nazis, was captured, imprisoned and tortured, escaped from captivity (once by jumping from a moving train, once by jumping out a hospital window), and became a sort of liaison to the Polish government-in-exile, reporting on what was happening back home. He witnessed the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto and (disguised as a Ukrainian soldier) visited a Nazi extermination camp.
Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski is a solo show, with well-known film, television and stage actor David Strathairn playing Karski. The casting is perfect: like Karski was in his later years, Straithairn is lean and wiry, with thinning gray hair combed straight back and eyes that burn with a fierce intensity.
Over the course of 90 intermission-less minutes, Strathairn becomes Karski, but not before a brief prelude of sorts during which–with house lights still up–Straithairn briefly talks about a world that is "toxic" and "out of control." He asks–as himself or as Karski, it's not completely clear–"so what can we do?" What indeed, given that, as he says, "Human beings have a tremendous capacity to ignore things that are inconvenient."
Soon, though, he sits in one of the two straight-backed chairs onstage–the only set pieces other than a simple wooden table–puts on his shoes, suit jacket, and tie, and transforms into Karski. He speaks with a Polish accent that sounds at times almost Italian, adding a subtle vowel sound at the ends of words or sentences–which makes sense, given that Karski was a bit of a polyglot. His cadences are breathy, almost jittery, a technique which seems to underscore the importance and serious nature of what he has to say.
The tale unwinds in chronological order, with Karski telling of the anti-semitism he saw as a boy in Poland, when other neighborhood boys threw dead rats at Jews. But his mother encouraged him to be kind toward and tolerant of those who were different than he. After his horrifying experiences in the Polish Army, Karski serves diplomatic missions as witness to Nazi cruelty, using his eidetic memory to deliver in great detail the atrocities he saw. "Remember this. Remember this," one of his guides through the Warsaw ghetto hisses at Karski. And Karski does, telling not only the Polish government-in-exile, but leaders in London and Washington (including Roosevelt himself), but as history sadly tells us, these entreaties fell upon deaf ears and the Holocaust continued unabated.
In many ways, this is a small show–one performer, minimal staging–but as directed by Derek Goldman, with brilliant assistance from lighting designer Zach Blane and composer and sound designer Roc Lee, it feels almost epic. Part of this is due to their efforts and the importance of the story being told, its global nature, and the impact of the horrors it describes. But much of the credit must go to Strathairn who, even at 73, exhibits a physicality that brings us deep inside the terror Karski both witnessed and experienced.
Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski may not be standard holiday fare, but with the tragic rise in anti-semitism we are currently experiencing (when a former president allows himself to dine with a neo-Nazi Holocaust denier!), its message could not be more timely.
Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski runs through December 18, 2022, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Peet's Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m., Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. There will also be a special student matinee at 12:00pm on Tuesday, December 6. Tickets are $24-$119, with discounts available for students, seniors, and groups. For tickets and information, please visit www.berkeleyrep.org or call the box office at 510-647-2949.