First steps

Awaken the Wolves

By Kevin Brofsky
Directed by Steven McElroy
Spotlight On Winter Theatre Festival 2002
Raw Space Theatre L
Equity showcase (closed)
Review by John Chatterton

Awaken the Wolves is a creditable attempt to deal with a fascinating subject: the assassination of a German embassy employee in Paris in 1938. The incident gave the Nazis the only excuse they needed to execute what became known as Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, in which Jewish synagogues and businesses were burned and numerous Jews murdered on sight. It wasn't long before the Holocaust was in full swing.

Brofsky tells the story of the assassin, Herschel Grynszpan (Eric Chase), with some three-dozen characters in numerous scenes. He was aided by fluid direction, actors who could broadly limn the various characters, and simple but effective costume color-coding (red for Jews, blue for Frenchmen, pale green for Germans). Heaven help the color-blind! (The scenes themselves had titles, but there seemed to be more scenes than the program listed.)

Despite the overall clarity of the production, it is not clear why Brofsky chose to create such obstacles for himself and the play. If the dramatic target is the irony that Grynszpan, in proving that a Jew could kill a Nazi, inadvertently set off the Holocaust, the play gets there halfway through. Unfortunately for what drama schools like to call the "dramatic arc," the play then goes on to follow its protagonist to the end of his road -- and beyond. He gets out of a French jail when the Germans invade, then gets picked up again and finally delivered to the Germans, who presumably kill him. In an ambiguous final scene, one of his captors runs into a similar-looking but different man (played by the same actor) in a cafe and apologizes to him (a scene that did more to confuse than cap the rest of the play). Other confusing elements were an incestuous link between Grynszpan and his sister and a strange (even nonsensical) speech by theologian Martin Niemöller, Grynszpan's prison-mate, about God's approval of Grynszpan's act because He "likes sacrifice."

The direction of the numerous scene changes was outstanding, as set pieces were seamlessly picked up, shuffled off, and brought on as required. The numerous costume changes were managed without letup (though referring to a character's expensive suit when he was wearing mismatched jacket and pants was a glaring error). The acting ranged from basic characterizations, to well-rounded ones (Cecilia Riddett as several older women; Kathleen Heenan as several younger ones, including Grynszpan's sister; and Michael Gabiano as a couple of well-spoken Germans, a prisoner, and Grynszpan's lawyer), to an outstanding one, by Eric Chase as Grynszpan himself. Most of the actors hampered their performances by affecting heavy dialect when a flavoring would have done the trick.

The general rep. plot for Theatre L (Jim Stewart), with its warm back- and side-lighting, was more appropriate to a cabaret, and wasn't helped by the unevenness of the warm and cool washes: the front of the stage was cool and the back warm, so actors were much more brightly lit when they approached the apron.

Playwrights discover much about their plays by putting them on their feet for the first time, and that's one reason festivals like Spotlight On's exist -- to give new plays a chance to be seen. Spotlight On and Brofsky are to be commended for a promising move in a challenging direction.

Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 1
Acting: 1
Set: 1
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2002 John Chatterton