“This performance that David Kwiat has given us is just sublime,” GableStage’s producing artistic director, Joseph Adler, anticipates for Sunday’s packed house during his pre-show talk. Mr. Kwiat is the star of Wiesenthal — the one-person, true-story play that GableStage premiered this past Friday.
Classical violin sets the stage as the Holocaust-surviving and Nazi-pursuing protagonist greets the audience from his office — the “Vienna Jewish Documentation Center.” He opens with a joke about an insecure, Mohawk-flaunting young punk challenging his gaze on a park bench recently. “What’s the matter old man, haven’t you ever had any fun in your life?” “Yes, I answered. I once made love to a peacock. And I think that you are my son.”
Writer Tim Dugan infuses such levity to make harder truths more manageable. What’s more, “humor can be used as a bridge. People laughing together sometimes forget to kill each other,” Kwiat’s character reminds the audience around the play’s midpoint.
Simon Wiesenthal, as the play performs, made phone calls and took notes and slowly sleuthed his way for 58 years towards the capture of eleven hundred Nazis who changed names like dirty underwear. These fugitives fled to the outer reaches of the world. Some hid around ground zero, near Arnold Schwarzenneger’s hometown, as Wiesenthal relates, like the “Butcher of Vilnius,” catalogued on stage and in last year’s film, Murer- Anatomy of a Trial.
Wiesenthal jokes that he’s sometimes been called “the Jewish James Bond,” but the morass of files strewn about the stage reinforces the stasis he goes on to describe of his mostly stolid toiling for justice. “Instead of an Aston Martin, an old Peugot.” And days propelled by little more than “persistence, publicity [i.e., death threats and hate mail], and the most dreaded thing known to mankind- paperwork!”
No, this isn’t Eli Cohen in action as depicted by Sascha Baron-Cohen in Netflix’s new historical drama, The Spy. Wiesenthal here is more like Mr. Rogers on his last day on the job, dutifully working one last file on the phone as retirement rears its bittersweet head. His wife, Cyla, calls reminding him to pick up some milk before heading home later to meet her and their family.
Recordings of pivotal people in Wiesenthal’s life buoy from the background as the lighting joins to subtly subdue the present into flashbacks. Conscripted as a slave laborer, Wiesenthal survived Auschwitz and other concentration camps. A guard cut off his toe for making eye contact with him. He then death marched through snow. His family is killed. And we hear Adolf Eichmann — one of Wiesenthal’s books is called I Hunted Eichmann — speaking at his own trial in Israel.
We’re reminded of the “blind obedience to authority” that’s as instrumental as anti-Semitism in executing humanity’s worst horrors. Women’s bodies were used as kindling in the Treblinka death camp, after all. One and a half million children were killed in the Holocaust — some of their bodies were used to fill potholes.
As history lessons ensue — think of Wiesenthal as a spruced-up master series of several TED Talks in one — the interplay of shame and savagery is assessed. Mr. Wiesenthal opens and closes with his own shame at only having produced the capture of five percent of all the war criminals he pursued. And in addition to the pre-Holocaust shame that catapulted prideful scapegoating to power, he also describes the first stage performance of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl in Vienna in 1958. And how “young protesters yelled and tossed leaflets from the balcony, calling the story a fraud,” because their own parents’ shame led them to lie to these children about what really happened, “just as their minds were poisoned…” in the last cycle.
Wiesenthal relishes “heresies” like speaking, as a Jew, of the other holocausts haunting humanity, from Christians to the lions and Armenians under the Ottoman Empire to Darfur and Yugoslavia. He similarly insists, in the broadest spirit of truth and reconciliation, that “a murderer is a murderer,” whether “Jewish, Nazi, or Eskimo,” as illustrated by anecdotes he recounts of the rare Jewish collaborators and Nazi abdicators.
He thanks 1970s Hollywood films like The Boys From Brazil and The Odessa File for “keeping awareness aware”. Last year’s historical films, Operation Finale and The Waldheim Waltz, will surely be mentioned in the eventual remake of this play decades down the road.
Because remembering is not for those we remember, as the play reminds us in closing. It’s for us. Living without this understanding, the play seems to tell us in this new age of U.S. synagogue shootings, from Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life in 2018 to the San Diego-area’s Poway tragedy earlier this year — is its own cycle of shame that we must manage with foresight as fearless as this GableStage performance.
Wiesenthal will be peformed at GableStage at the Biltmore in Coral Gables through October 20. For ticket information, please go to www.gablestage.org or call the box office at 305.445.1119.