Reviews NYCOff-Broadway Published 28 January 2024

Review: Our Class at BAM Fisher

BAM Fisher ⋄ January 12-February 11, 2024

Through the lives of ten Polish primary school classmates, we see the horrors a community can perpetrate upon itself, and the long tail of violence’s aftermath. Loren Noveck reviews.

Loren Noveck
The cast of <i>Our Class</i>. Photo: Pavel Antonov

The cast of Our Class. Photo: Pavel Antonov

Classmates are always an artificial sort of group, a gathering of circumstance more than affinity. They’re people who share a time and a place, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have any deeper bond. And yet in Our Class, a group of classmates, over eighty years, can’t seem to escape the ties that hold them together, even though those ties have as much to do with trauma, horror, and the worst of humanity as they do with affection. That shared time and place begin in a Polish village in 1927, when a group of ten students starts primary school and says what they want to be when they grow up: seven boys, three girls; five Jews, five Catholics. Abram (Richard Topol) wants to be a cobbler like his father, but will emigrate as a teenager to America and study to be a rabbi. Heniek (Will Manning) wants to be a fireman and becomes a priest. Dora (Gus Birney) wants to be a movie star and winds up dead at twenty–one. Three of them will be murdered in their twenties, by other members of their class—two of those standing in for a much vaster swath of nearly 1,600 Jewish deaths that occur not at the hands of the Nazis but at the hands of the locals. The time and the place dictate that this is both a brutal story and a terribly ordinary one. The frame of the classroom runs through the piece, but that bond comes to seem ever more artificial, ever more larded with irony as we go. 

As the deaths of Jakub Katz (Stephen Ochsner), beaten to a pulp, and Dora, burned alive in a barn with the rest of the local Jewish community, stand in for the whole population of Jews, four of the classmates–the “four Musketeers”–stand in for the Catholics, acting as ringleaders of the pogrom and then survivors remaining as anchors of their community post-war. Which is not to say this is entirely a story of villains and victims—two of the Jews are saved by two of the Catholics, who hide them and then marry them. One of those, Menachem (Andrey Burkovskiy), grows from a film-obsessed young man into a brutal secret police officer. There are definitely characters at each end of the spectrum: Zygmunt, played by Elan Zafier, the worst of the Musketeers, is a bully in school, a traitor to his friends, a rapist and inciter of mob violence as a young man, and a hypocrite who lies to Abram and blames the annihilation of the town’s Jews on the Nazis. And Abram seems to lead a blameless life, siring an enormous family after losing all his birth relatives to the pogrom and continuing to correspond with his classmates nonetheless. More interesting are those between the extremes: Catholic Władek (Ilia Volok), and Jewish Rachelka (Alexandra Silber), who marry even though that pushes Rachelka into a forced conversion to Catholicism, and remain married until their respective deaths in 2001 and 2002, despite both being tormented by the past. Władek sinks into alcoholism; Rachelka, now Marianna, chooses time and time again to stay with the man who saved her, whether or not she actually loves him. Or Catholic Zocha (Tess Goldwyn), who hides Jewish Menachem but refuses to help his wife, Dora, or their baby, and will eventually seek out Abram’s help to resettle in America alone. 

Polish playwright Tadeusz Słobodzianek’s script dates back to 2009, but one understands the urgency right now of a story about how a community and its members live past the aftermath of horrifying violence that plays on the existing divisions within a society–especially to director Igor Golyak and his Arlekin Players Theatre, a company created from immigrant actors from the former Soviet Union. (Golyak himself is Ukrainian and trained as a director and actor in Moscow.)

And yet Słobodzianek’s script (adapted by Norman Allen) can get stuck in the abstraction of narration; it often uses a storytelling style, as if the whole play is told by the children reading a book. He has characters describe events in the third-person past tense (they even  narrate their own deaths) and ends each scene with a parable song that mirrors the ones the children sing at the beginning (not all of which appear in this production). That evenness of tone does make the horrors ordinary, weaves them into the quotidian details of the lives that these people go on to lead, but it also distances us from them, makes us focus on the beat that comes next, the next chapter of the story. 

Golyak addresses this with a kind of “everything and the kitchen sink” approach to style, adding urgency, irony, texture, sometimes in a haphazard way. He has the actors enter as themselves, and sit down with scripts as if to deliver a staged reading, and this kind of Brechtian frame is present intermittently, with actors playing characters who are dead or not in the current scene sometimes sitting at the sides of the stage as themselves, watching (and explicitly called out by their real names in Abram’s closing monologue). He has an exceptional sense of the possibilities of the space (aided by Jan Pappelbaum’s set, centered on a giant wall that is mostly chalkboard edged by the back sides of standard theatrical scenic flats–we even see BAM scrawled on some of them–which open in different combinations to reveal liminal spaces behind, and Eric Dunlap’s eerie projections). Scenes take place in ostensibly backstage nooks or on scaffolding platforms revealed by openings in the wall; in the aisles of the playing space; even above the lighting grid or in the lobby or the street outside (carried to us on live video). We in the audience are virtually incorporated into the experience; we are among the townspeople in a very literal way. 

Certain sequences incorporate simultaneous video (in a way that recalls Ivo van Hove), especially toward the end as the survivors represent their own experience for television. (Golyak has them self-consciously filming, calling “cut” from time to time, in ways that don’t seem to be part of the script.) He lards sequences with a deeply ironic whimsy, as when the Musketeers draw caricatured faces onto balloons to represent the Jews and then Dora cuts the strings and frees the balloons as her community dies. And some of the scenes of violence–Dora’s rape, Menachem’s torture of the Musketeers–are staged with more realistic action than the script would dictate. 

The performance styles vary as well, from Elan Zafir’s “just-us-guys” naturalism as ringleader Zygmunt to Richard Topol’s slightly more stylized narrator persona as early emigrant Abram. Gus Birney leans in to Dora’s naive girlishness even as a ghost, where Tess Goldwyn seems world-weary from the beginning, as if the Zocha of the future is always shadowing her demeanor.  Topol’s Abram, Manning’s Heniek, Volok’s Władek, and Silber’s Rachelka/Marianna are the longest-lived characters, and we see their physicality slowly degrade as the play goes own: they, like the rest of the cast, bounce with childish energy at the beginning, and move with decisiveness throughout the middle portion of the play. Then, in the scene that covers the twenty-ish years where they are the only ones remaining, we see them stoop, speak more slowly, retreat from the outside world. Until, at the end, there is nothing left but the memorial dedicated at the sixtieth anniversary of the massacre. 

Yet that memorial commemorates only the terrible events of that day, not the sixty years that the survivors lived afterwards. Słobodzianek and Golyak both know that the aftermath is the story of how a community goes on in the wake of horror, and if their approaches sometimes seem disparate, both know this is a process so many of us are living through, again and still.

Loren Noveck

Loren Noveck is a writer, editor, dramaturg, and recovering Off-Off-Broadway producer, who was for many years the literary manager of Six Figures Theatre Company. She has written for The Brooklyn Rail, The Brooklyn Paper, and NYTheater now, and currently writes occasionally for HowlRound and WIT Online. In her non-theatrical life, she works in book publishing.

Review: Our Class at BAM Fisher Show Info

Produced by Mart Foundation and Arlekin Players Theatre

Directed by Igor Golyak

Written by Tadeusz Słobodzianek, adapted by Norman Allen

Choreography by Timur Sadykov

Scenic Design Jan Pappelbaum; COSTUME DESIGN: Sasha Ageeva; PROJECTION DESIGN: Eric Dunlap

Lighting Design Adam Silverman

Sound Design Ben Williams

Cast includes Gus Birney, Andrey Burkovskiy, José Espinosa, Tess Goldwyn, Will Manning, Stephen Ochsner, Alexandra Silber, Richard Topol, Ilia Volok, Elan Zafir

Original Music Anna Drubich

Show Details & Tickets

Running Time 3 hours


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