I knew it would be the hardest of hard transitions to step from an indolent Santa Barbara summer afternoon, Sunday tourists crowding the walkways of Paseo Nuevo, into the darkness of a World War II ghetto. The melancholy of an autumn evening would have suited better. But such is the intrinsic power of Joshua Sobol’s tale, carried in this production by several strong leading characters; I was pulled in despite it all. And I expected to be. Jerry Oshinsky’s DIJO Productions has cut a respectable niche for itself in the local theater scene by playing gritty historical dramas. Plays like Twelve Angry Men, Freud’s Last Session and New Jerusalem: The Trials of Spinoza are in fact not so much about the past as about enduring concerns with conscience, authority, community, and meaning. You can always count on DIJO for delivering a serious encounter with the human heart.
And this production about the flourishing of an unlikely theater in the Lithuanian ghetto of Vilna is no exception. Ironies and paradoxes abound. Most central of all, the question of the role of entertainment in lives of those struggling to survive: Is theater a luxury or necessity? And then there is the shocking juxtaposition of Jewish comedy with the sadistic humor of Nazi SS overlord, Kittel (played powerfully by George Coe). Furthermore, rather than presenting an oversimplified division of villain and victim, Ghetto follows figures that occupy gray areas, like Jewish ghetto policeman Jacob Gens (Joseph Beck) and ghetto entrepreneur Weiskopf (Ed Giron). Finally, there is an intriguing ambiguity of life and stage which, highlighted by surreal vaudevillian elements like ventriloquism, blurs the merge of the actual and the pretend. Music director Bill Waxman plays live piano in character as Srulik, performing real songs salvaged from Vilna, while Jennifer Marco beautifully carries the bulk of the singing as Hayah.