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A CurtainUp Review
The Good And the True
There have been various solutions to this problem — abstract the event by representing it in fantasy and obscure references; for example, Pan's Labyrinth or Art Spiegelman's Maus. Another is to stand witness to what happened with direct testimony as in Elie Wiesel's Night. An even more impossible way is to satirize those responsible, as in Monty Python's "Mr. Hilter" sketch.
In the New End Theatre Beyond's new production of The Good and the True at the DR2 Theatre, the emphasis is decidedly on standing witness, and the result is mixed. The two people involved are both interesting and admirable, but the show itself is, sadly, considerably less compelling.
Originally produced by the Svandovo Theatre in Prague, The Good and the True tells the stories of actress Hana Pravda (played by her real life granddaughter Isobel Pravda) and rugby star Milos Dobry (the redoubtable Saul Reichlin). Compilers Tomas Hrbek, Lucie Kolouchova and Daniel Hrbek (also the director, scenic and costume designer) use authentic testimonies for the entirety of the play's dialogue, allowing each character to essentially tell his or her own tale as the audience listens.
Predictably, the stories are powerful ones. Pravda explains the struggle to be with her love as the two are separated at Auschwitz, while Dobry's story of brutality, hatred, fear and ultimately survival through Auschwitz and Mengele's experimental camps is perhaps even more harrowing. Hrbek does little to enhance this effect, likely believing that the tale should speak for itself. An effective set (fronted by barbed wire), lighting and sound design scheme helps focus our attention on the people themselves.
The problem, however, is that a dramatic experience can't simply rest on even the most compelling witness testimony. Pravda and Reichlin do an exceptional job letting their characters do the talking. But there's little surprise here, little in the way of revelation or insight or truth: just the plodding horror of an event so staggeringly evil and overwhelmingly sadistic it defies attempts to encapsulate it.
There is no interaction between the characters at all (apparently Pravda and Dobry never met); one speaks, then the other which gives the audience the strange sense that it's watching two separate one-person shows rather than one unified narrative. And since the outcome is, thankfully, assured — Pravda and Dobry both survived to tell their stories —there's little in the way of dramatic tension either, or indeed even dramatic engagement.
In some ways I'm loath to go down this path. The people being represented have important stories to tell, after all, and perhaps a more traditionally dramatic approach would have cheapened or minimized their experiences. But theater of this kind is supposed to be transformative, to say something in dramatic form which could not be said in any other artistic medium and truthfully I could have been just as moved reading Pravda's and Dobry's firsthand accounts as watching their actors dutifully recite their personal narratives in turn.
I came away from The Good and the True feeling renewed admiration for the millions who both did and did not survive the Holocaust; I just wish I could have felt the same engagement in this dramatic representation of their stories.