Review: “Our Class” (Remy Bumppo)

The cast of "Our Class".  (Photo by Johnny Knight)
The cast of “Our Class”. (Photo by Johnny Knight)

Show:  Our Class

Company: Remy Bumppo

Venue: Greenhouse Theater Center

Die Roll: 15

Generally, I never get to enjoy the experience of being fully immersed in a theatrical experience.  I believe this to be true for most directors, playwrights, and probably actors, too.  I watch parts of a play: the acting, the lights, the sound cues, the staging.  I consider how this thing was done, or how I would have done that thing differently.  As a critic, my job is to do that same thing for public consumption, which heightens my awareness of the way that I watch a show.  So, when I see a play that totally envelopes me and keeps me from doing anything else, I can safely say that it is a terrific work.

Before I write anything else about Our Class, let me state that this is an amazing play.  You should go see it.  Go see it, dammit.

All right, now for a bit more carefully thought-out criticism:

The play centers around a group of people who started their lives out as classmates in a small Polish town.  We watch their lives progress from mostly happy childhood scenes of songs and mild teasing about school room crushes, to Communist Party involvement, to Nazi activity and the Holocaust, to Soviet occupation, and onward to nearly the modern day.  We observe at a safe distance the horrors that made up 20th century life for the residents of Poland.  And we do so through a brilliantly staged retelling of all these events through the eyes of 10 classmates who saw it all: 5 of them Jewish, 5 of them Catholic.

Playwright Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s script is an all-out symphony of emotions.  While the source material is heavy, there are moments of humor, sentiment, and song.  In fact, the first half of the show is heavily populated with songs sung by the cast, and they fit in seamlessly.  Not one of them feels out of place.  They are songs of the people, whether children’s songs or martial anthems, they carry the mood of the citizenry, at least in the form that we’re getting to know it through these 10 individuals.

Ryan Craig’s translation was clearly written for a British audience originally, given a number of the colloquialisms, but that doesn’t alter the fact that it stands up really well in its new tongue.  As a literary translator myself, I am thrilled that Remy Bumppo commits their resources to do plays from other lands and other languages.  It’s a great way to learn about other cultures.  And, when the translation is as solid as this one is, the lessons are learned easily, almost without realizing that there might be some didactic elements to the script.

Much of the show’s action is portrayed through monologues and self-narrated action.  It’s a style that effectively communicates both exposition and action.  It is stylized, but in order to cover so much territory in so little time, it does a great job.

Over the 2-plus hours we saw fights, beatings, deceptions, rapes, murders, rescues, acts of both cowardice and bravery, acts of both love and hate.  And at the heart of what we saw was the human condition.  When it comes down to it, the events in this play are specific to Poland, historically, but the play allows us to see into ourselves and the people we know.  As Americans we can be lulled into a false sense that nothing like the events of this play could happen here, that perhaps we live in a more enlightened time when we can’t imagine people doing these things to each other.  By showing us characters with whom we can identify in situations that are all too real and exceptionally complicated, we get ideas of how we would have behaved in similar situations.

No character is without blame in the atrocities, though some are more devilish than others.  And, as luck would have it, the better people die early on.  The most despicable last longest.  While the cast was really good, all the way around, I want to feature Dennis William Grimes and Matthew Holzfeind who brought the play’s most villainous characters to life.  It’s a hard task to make such terrible people also empathetic, and they both did so, even despite the fact that Holzfeind’s character may have been a sociopath.  And while Aram Monisoff and Rachel Shapiro played characters who passed on early in the plot, they brought to life more idealistic characters who are trod upon by the events in the town, and really brought home the horror that is appropriate to the related events.

“Our Class” runs through May 11, 2014 at the Greenhouse Theater Center.  More info can be found at TheatreInChicago.com

TEN WORD SUMMARY: People can do horrible things.  Polish classmates experience the worst.

RATING: d20  – “One of the Best”