By Clark Young and Derek Goldman
Directed by Derek Goldman
Featuring David Strathairn
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
90 minutes | No intermission
“Great crimes start with little things.”
Indeed. In Berkeley Rep’s production of Clark Young and Derek Goldman’s play about the holocaust, we’re reminded how even the humblest and most innocuous people can unwittingly become entangled in the worst of humanity.
As the “insignificant, little man” Jan Karski, actor David Strathairn delivers a masterclass of a live performance — a one-man show that rivets from the austere opening of simply getting ready for work, to the scintillating escape sequences and to the solemn climax. Ninety minutes gone in the blink of an eye.
In storyteller Jan Karski we have an unlikely real-life hero; a mild-mannered Polish courier born in 1914 who finds himself on a mission to deliver eyewitness accounts from Jewish Ghettos inside Germany-occupied Warsaw to weary government officials. When they don’t believe the staggering absoluteness of the death and destruction in the reports, we glean — somewhat unbelievably — how alternate and shocking realities perhaps come to be. The relevance of this play in 2022 can not be understated.
Told as a first person account in flashback, Strathairn alternatively delivers monologues, before acting out various scenes, playing multiple characters to take us back to a war-torn Poland in World War II. On more than one occasion the proceedings feel like a spy thriller — characters in disguise in undercover operations — with particularly thrilling and terrifying moments including a daring escape from a train, an attempted suicide, and a surprise Blitzkrieg which catches our protagonist wildly off guard while shaving.
David Strathairn will be immediately recognizable to most. A storied movie and TV actor with a successful career dating back to the 1980s, the San Francisco native has been cast in so many productions it’s easy to lose count. I most readily recall him as Tom Cruise’s brother in The Firm (1993). But there’s recent film gems too, of course, like Nomadland (2022) in which Strathairn stars opposite Frances McDormand.
Lean and charismatic, here he’s capable of delivering an effortless Polish accent or swapping rapidly back and forth between several characters during an intense interrogation sequence, or even playing, with swaggering grandeur, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The choreography of the solo fight sequences is remarkable and superbly executed — a live demonstration on how to strangle yourself! No doubt this is a physically demanding role.
But there’s much more to this production also worthy of note.
For one, that glorious lighting. If you’re a student of lighting design you must see this play. The timing and effects are exquisite. Mostly understated with subtle white balance shifts, but at other times dynamic (aforementioned Blitzkrieg) and creative (gobos for the Jewish Ghettos). Paired with the equally exceptional sound design and you have an immersion that demonstrates why live theater is such a unique and exhilarating experience.
My only nit is that Strathairn’s Polish accent is so convincing — reminiscent even of Roman Polanski’s in The Tenant (1976) — that at times I found it hard to understand the dialog. Case in point: the last line in the play. I didn’t quite grasp what was said. Later, as we were heading back to Addison Street in Berkeley on a drizzly evening we happened to run into others who were wondering the same thing. What exactly was that last line?
In a world of influencers, doom scrolling and social media stunts, sometimes getting back to basics is a welcome comfort tonic.
Unquestionably the relevance of this material is, sadly, important as ever. If history tends to repeat itself, we best be as informed as possible. So do be warned. Obviously it’s grim. With all that’s going on in the world, increasing geopolitical tensions and differences, you may want to brace yourself and be ready. If you want to spend a Saturday night at a feel good musical and a few drinks with friends that’s all well and good. This show, however, is more akin to holding up a mirror to the world, and, as noted in the play itself, revealing the extremity of humanity, from the good to the diabolical. Your heart rate may oscillate wildly. Not that there aren’t, thankfully, moments of levity and joy within. And I appreciate that it never veers into preachy territory or talks down to the audience.
At times the play’s presentation brought back fond memories of The Creature, a black box production from way back when in San Francisco starring Bay Area legend James Carpenter; the kinds of productions stripped to the essentials with engaging stories told by exceptional actors in the most raw and visceral manner possible. In the case of Remember This, for instance, the set consists of merely a table and two chairs.
In a world of influencers, doom scrolling and social media stunts, sometimes getting back to basics is a welcome comfort tonic. Jan Karski tells his story without hyperbole or the need for clicks and views. It’s up to us to draw conclusions, and figure out how and if we need to change our behaviors to confront the rise of monsters amongst us. Because, yes, it’s worth remembering great crimes do start with little things.
Lead photo: Rich Hein