Story: Kazimierz Moczarski was a journalist and lawyer who served as an officer of the Polish Home Army during Poland’s occupation by Germany and the Soviet Union in World War II. He eluded capture during the war, but shortly thereafter was imprisoned by the Stalinist Polish secret police.
In 1949 Moczarski was thrown into a cramped jail cell and forced to share the confined quarters with Gustaw Schilke, a former member of the Nazi SS police, and Jurgen Stroop, a Nazi general who was responsible for the final “liquidation” of the Warsaw Ghetto that resulted in the mass murder of Polish Jews. During his nine months of confinement with these war criminals, Moczarski listened intently to the words spoken by Stroop, determined to see the Nazi leader brought to justice for his crimes and hoping to use Stroop’s own words against him should Moczarski ever gain his own freedom.
Highlights: Philip Boehm, artistic director for Upstream Theater, has translated Moczarski’s memoirs, also titled Conversations with an Executioner, and adapted the Polish resistance leader’s work into a taut, gripping, one-act drama receiving its world premiere at Upstream. The company’s mission statement notes that Upstream is “dedicated to bringing an international perspective to local theater…to move you, and move you to think.” With this current production, Upstream succeeds nobly in achieving that goal.
Other Info: The 75-minute work is engaging from the first glimpse of Scott Neale’s shabby, grimy set, which surrounds the audience with four drab, dreary walls relieved only by a tiny, barred window on one side and a thick door on another through which a brutish Soviet guard regularly enters to harass the prisoners. The claustrophobic effect accentuates the play’s sense of loneliness and desolation.
That shabby design is complemented with the nastiest, most shredded-looking blanket and squalid mattress you’ll ever see, courtesy of prop designer Robert van Dillen, who also provides a rickety old table and an assortment of tiny boxes that contain the prisoners’ personal treasures. Steve Carmichael’s lighting underscores the depression of the hopeless cell, while Michele Siler’s costumes emphasize Stroop’s obsession with order as well as Moczarski’s unexpected arrival.
The touching, melancholy chords played by accordionist Isaac Lifits wafting in from just off the stage provide subtle accompaniment for the sad and shocking tale that is enacted by director Boehm’s four dedicated performers, all of whom bring significant touches to their portrayals.
Gary Wayne Barker shows us the fastidious nature of Stroop as he religiously polishes his prized boots, whose significance is uncovered eventually when he gets careless in one of his dialogues with Moczarski. Barker’s Stroop pronounces that “authority is sacred,” so much so that he’s willing to turn Moczarski in for smuggling cigarettes into their cell. He also discusses killing war victims as casually as commenting upon an attractive prison worker.
J. Samuel Davis maintains a seething intensity as the defiant Moczarski, although his hostility becomes more channeled and constructive as the weeks and months go by. Davis engages us with Moczarski’s careful dissection of the Nazi general’s pompous personality, eventually erupting with anger only at the most judicious moments in his quest for justice.
John Bratkowski strikes a balance between his two cellmates, acknowledging his role in the German army and its occupation of foreign soil, but refusing to condone the “butchery” of civilians of any ethnic background undertaken by Stroop and his Nazi comrades, even as he loyally observes protocol in reference to Stroop’s superior rank.
Robert Mitchell completes the quartet as a stoically sadistic guard who can destroy even the simplest glimmer of compassion by any of the prisoners with quick and savage attacks on their bodies and psyches. Mitchell also serves admirably as the production’s fight choreographer.
Boehm’s direction is focused and thorough, capturing tiny details in his cast’s performances that enhance this lean, muscular adaptation. Conversations with an Executioner is a sober, superior drama that does justice to its source material.
Play: Conversations with an Executioner
Group: Upstream Theater
Venue: Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand
Dates: April 19, 20, 21, 22, 26, 27, 28, 29
Tickets: $15-$25; contact 863-4999 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos by Peter Wochniak