Review: “Here there are blueberries” shows the banality of evil

0

“Here There Are Blueberries”, a play conceived and directed by Moisés Kaufman, tells the true story of a photo album sent to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2007.

The sender, a retired US Army intelligence officer, found the album shortly after the war while living in Frankfurt, Germany. Towards the end of his life, he thought the collection of photos from the Auschwitz concentration camp would be of historical interest. He was right, even if it took impressive detective work to reveal the value of what had been gathering dust in his archives for over 60 years.

The play, which has its world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse as part of a co-production with Tectonic Theater Project, meditates on the many aspects of this unsettling story. Kaufman, artistic director of Tectonic, and Amanda Gronich, founding member of the company, co-wrote the screenplay, which respects the factual record while taking artistic liberties for dramatic clarity, economy and strength.

The writers worked closely on “The Laramie Project,” the groundbreaking non-fiction drama about the 1998 murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard. In “Here There Are Blueberries,” they courageously and compassionately address the nature of murderous complicity on an unfathomable scale.

The story of the album is told from the point of view of the researchers who gather information about the characters in the photos. The images, which are an integral part of the piece, received so much attention when news of their discovery broke that the museum’s website crashed.

Museum archivist Rebecca Erbelding (Elizabeth Stahlmann) is initially skeptical of the claim that the photos are from Auschwitz when she is first contacted by the donor. But after the album arrives, his attention is grabbed by a photo of Josef Mengele, one of the Third Reich’s most depraved doctors.

Previously, she explains, there had been no photographic evidence of Mengele at Auschwitz. Feeling the importance of what has been sent to her, she consults a senior colleague.

A closer look at the photos of Judy Cohen (Rosina Reynolds), the director of the museum’s photographic collection, reveals a central figure in the maintenance of the Nazi regime, Rudolf Höss. As Judy explains, “He built Auschwitz and he ran it for years. He is responsible for everything we consider the camp: the barracks, the guard towers, the electrified fences, the extermination infrastructure… the whole organization.

The album contains 116 photos with captions in German. The characters in the photos are not the prisoners but the people who ran the camp. Ordinary Germans, bonding with work, participating in official ceremonies and enjoying recreational activities. The images provide a haunting illustration of what philosopher Hannah Arendt has called “the banality of evil.”

Photographic analysis supplemented by ingenious research leads to the conclusion that the album belonged to Karl Höcker (Scott Barrow). A former bank teller, he became one of Auschwitz’s top administrators – motivated, it seems, not by ideology but by the career opportunism of a petty bureaucrat.

Kaufman and Gronich deliberate on the many historical and moral issues that real-life Rebecca and her colleagues grappled with as they closely studied the album. The more information they uncover, the harder they find it to understand the reality in front of them.

There is particular interest in a lodge that was built to provide Nazi officers with a place to vacation with their families to relieve work stress. This rustic pastime contrasts sharply with the bleak reality of the crematoriums billowing smoke a few miles away.

A photo of women who worked in the camp as telephone, telegraph and radio operators captures them doing calisthenics with an air of relaxed bonhomie. Another shows them on a bridge in exuberant uniforms huddled together as a man plays the accordion.

What did these people know about their workplace? The specialization of the work allowed the workers to deny any knowledge of what was happening in Auschwitz. But as the researchers reveal, their ignorance was a convenient ruse.

A photo of Höcker at the lodge serving blueberries to female staff (the caption provides the piece’s title) is all the more horrifying for looking so serene. The smiling faces suggest a utopia, but they are the managers and guardians of a living hell.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was established to commemorate the victims of the Nazi genocide. Staff are therefore forced to consider whether it is right to dedicate space to a collection of author photos.

How to recall history? Should the names and faces of those who enabled atrocities be expunged from the record? Ultimately, museum staff find it necessary to draw attention to how ordinary citizens have been corrupted by ideology, self-interest, and a conspiracy of lies. Otherwise, how can humanity be prevented from falling back into darkness?

“Here There Are Blueberries” perhaps stretches too far by following stories of descendants of Nazis coming to terms with their heritage. The structure of the piece takes on the elasticity of a PowerPoint presentation, scattering the focus.

Although not a text drama, the interviews are the source of the dramatic material. The assembly has not yet reached its optimal form. But the strength of the work is less in the dramatic writing than in the creation of a contemplative theatrical space.

Kaufman, who is the son of a Holocaust survivor, infuses his company with a low-key moral purpose that brought tears to my eyes for much of the production’s 90 minutes. A set of eight, with each actor taking on multiple roles, majestically balances thought and feeling.

Photographs are projected onto Derek McLane’s set, which transitions from the museum’s research office into a realm of fluid memory. The images come to life both aurally and visually, with the cast members contributing to the soundscape. But what is most powerful is the way the silence is intertwined. Kaufman directs this impeccable production with symphonic subtlety.

The sincerity of this collective effort powerfully communicates the grave significance of this treasure trove of artifacts almost lost in time. History strikes again. Will we unplug our ears and learn from the mistakes of the past?

“Here there are blueberries”

Where: Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theater, La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, UC San Diego, La Jolla
When: 7:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 8 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays. 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturday. 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Sunday. Until August 21.
Tickets: $25 to $62
Contact: (858) 550-1010 or lajollaplayhouse.org
Operating time: 1 hour 30 minutes

Share.

Comments are closed.