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The Journals Of Mihail Sebastian
by Elyse Sommer
CurtainUpreviewed I Will Bear Witness, the Classic Stage's dramatization of the journals kept by Victor Klemperer during the Nazi years? Yet I shouldn't have been surprised. That sense of time flying by defines the difference between an ordinary New Yorker's day to day existence and that of a Jew trying to survive those horrific events.
Time, which gallops along pleasantly for most of us, moved at an an excruciating, no end in sight snail's pace for people like Klemperer in Dresden, Mihail Sebastian in Bucharest and, of course, Anne Frank in Amsterdam. As Steven Kunkel's Mihail Sebastian at one point in this new play puts it "I wait as I would for a train. My whole life is one long wait."
The 1996 publication of the thoughts Sebastian recorded between 1935 and 1944 marked yet another important contribution to the bearing witness literature. His chronicle of the escalating indignities of day to day existence under one anti-Semitic dictatorship after another and the close brushes with extermination are woven into a vivid personal story -- a story that includes his relationships with women and members of the cultural elite who helped to give Bucharest the nickname of " a little Paris." His connections to people in high places and what a historical note in the program describes as "the particularly opportunistic nature of the Romanian facist regime" accounted for Sebastian's and other Jews' (including his brother and mother) narrow escapes from deportation to the death camps. However, as the Journal and this play make clear, the opportunism of the regime was reflected in the venality of the intellectuals he called his friends -- among them the philosophy professor who was his earliest mentor and whose betrayal Sebastian tries to separate from the man's wisdom, the way Wagner lovers have long tried to separate the composer's hateful traits from his music.
Transforming literary nonfiction into a play is always a daunting challenge -- especially a play to be performed by a single actor and a story that refers to people unfamiliar to most people in the audience. The triumvirate responsible for achieving this goal -- adaptor Auburn, director Carl Forsman and actor Stephen Kunken -- have come as close to doing so as is possible for this kind of material.
Condensing the 672-page diary into an under two-hour theater piece inevitably leaves one with many unanswered questions (e.g.: details about how Sebastian managed to survive despite his crumbling support system). Nevertheless, Auburn has created a script that is as much a portrait of a whole society as the man who finds himself increasingly alone and horrified by the evidences of that society's "bestiality."
Mr. Forsman has used every trick available to a director to enliven a solo show. He keeps Kunken constantly on the move. With a strong assist from his creative team he dramatizes the monologue. By replacing the tables that suggest a gay cabaret life with a lone table and chest of drawers Nathan Heverin's set underscores the shift from active social life to grimly deprived and isolated existence. Stefan Jacobs' sound design supplies the ominous sounds of cheering fascistic crowds and falling bombs. In one particularly striking war scene the upstage wall is sent crashing down on the surviving diarist.
The Bach sonata that greets the audience even before the lights dim establishes music as a key element in depicting the inch by inch diminishments in Sebastian's life. There is one especially moving recollection about his decision to distract himself from the ever mounting tensions by buying a ticket to a concert, only to find himself immediately beset by pangs of conscience about being "so light-minded and unscrupulous as to go to a Geman concert in these bitter days." When he does go, the splendidly dressed people all around him make him feel more wretched and alone than ever, unable to enjoy the music.
Except for the intermission, Stephen Kunken commands the stage without a moment's respite. He creates a rich portrait of a young man leading a somewhat charmed life who must spend his most creative years struggling against those who would annihilate him. Getting to know his charm, his humor and his passion, and the pleasure he takes in being a newly produced playwright -- it all heightens the pain of watching his descent into despair and disillusion. It's a career zooming follow-up to his excellent performance Story earlier this season (Our Review).
For all of Kunken's bravura performance and Auburn's well-balanced condensation, the production at times strains too hard to be lively. Having the actor rushing from set piece to set piece can be distracting. Though one eventually ignores the ringing sound that announces the beginning of a new journal entry, this too is initially annoying and not really needed.
In an ideal theater world, even a small company like the Keen might have considered using this diary as a springboard for a full-fledged play, like The Diary of Anne Frank or Ariane Mnouchkine's adaptation of Klaus Mann's novel Mephisto which had a limited Off-Broadway run a few seasons ago. But this not being an ideal world, the company has done well with the resources at its disposal. The Journals Of Mihail Sebastian is a well executed and worthwhile addition to the solo play canon.
A minor consumer note: The very affordably priced tickets are sold on an open seating basis. The Forty-Fifth Street Theater is small enough so that every seat is prime, but if you're only happy in the front rows, get there early.
Journal 1935-1944: The Fascist Years by Mihail Sebastian, Radu Ioanid (Introduction), Patrick Camiller (Translator)
CurtainUp's review of the staged version of Victor Klemperer' journal, see I Will Bear Witness
The Diary of Anne Frank
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by
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