What if you had an urgent message that was so awful that no one wanted to hear it and those who heard it had a hard time believing it?
This was the fate of Jan Karski, a Polish diplomat turned resistance fighter who, in the early 1940s, witnessed the Nazi extermination camp at Auschwitz and the Warsaw ghetto. He described what he saw to the Allied leaders, his goal of raising awareness so that they intervene and prevent the annihilation of Polish Jews.
That he succeeded in his mission to alert them is astonishing. He had been taken prisoner first by the Russians, who had thrown him into a labor camp, then by the Germans, who had beaten him a few inches from his life. He fled the Nazis, with the help of Polish partisans, through a daring escape from a hospital.
But Karski failed – through no fault of his own – to elicit swift and decisive intervention from British and American leaders. Churchill’s guards did not allow Karski access to the Prime Minister who, after the war, denied knowing the full extent of the persecution of the Jews. Roosevelt heard from Karski, but was more interested in how Poland’s agricultural economy played into war strategy than he was in the destruction of three million Polish Jews.
This odyssey is the subject of Remember this: The lesson of Jan Karski, a powerful but unmistakably educational 90-minute one-man show featuring David Strathairn To Shakespeare Theater CompanyMichael R. Klein Theater. It was written by Clark Young and Derek Goldman, and directed by Goldman.
The project originated at the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown University, where Karski earned his doctorate and then taught international affairs for four decades. The script has evolved over seven years and has had multi-actor incarnations.
This lean version, which is also suitable for film, is a tour de force for Strathairn, an incredibly accomplished veteran of film, television and stage roles. (If you’re tired of playing Six Degrees of Kevin bacon, try Six degrees of David Strathairn. They memorable crossed paths in the 1994 film The wild river.)
The current rendering of Remember this is predominantly linear and episodic, an intellectually, emotionally, and physically demanding performance as Strathairn throws himself into not only the character of Karski, but also that of Russians, Germans, Polish Jews, and even Roosevelt. In brief sections of the prologue and epilogue, Strathairn more or less plays himself considering Karski’s legacy.
Strathairn is a charismatic shapeshifter. His multiple accents and manners are surprisingly believable, and under the guidance of movement director Emma Jaster, 72, Strathairn, who was initially trained in a professional clown school, throws himself onto the austere stage, falling from table and chair in rolling falls. , fighting in a brutal pantomime. In the wrong hands, such antics could go very wrong, both dramatically and orthopedically, but he daringly succeeds.
Equally impressive, however, is its emotional versatility and complexity. When you look at Strathairn you see layers of strength and vulnerability, cunning and instinct, friendship and mistrust, liveliness and melancholy. In a moment of transformation, he can appear big or small, imposing or pitiful, chic or messy.
Zach Blanelighting and Roc LeeMusic and sound design transport us with emotion through small Polish towns, bombed barracks, concentration camps and ghettos. Goldman’s management is indeed quick and pragmatic.
That said, the project is resolutely edutainment. After all, the word “lesson” is in the title itself. Karski is certainly a subject worthy of the name, but one who has written a lot and has been written about a lot, and he appeared in Claude Lanzman’s mega-documentary in 1985. Holocaust. Any project that brings it back to public consciousness deserves kudos, especially a project as well designed as this. But what should we remember today?
Because let’s face it – the Karski saga and Remember this have a deep substrate of futility and discouragement.
“Everyone seemed shrouded in a haze of disease and death,” Karski recalls of his visit to the Warsaw Ghetto. “We passed a miserable replica of a park, a small square in which a patch of grass had managed to survive. Mothers huddled together, nursing withered infants.
“The children, with every bone in their skeleton appearing through their taut skin, played.”
Karski’s guide explains, “They play before they die.”
As in this passage, there is an overwhelming sense of existential helplessness in the play, which resembles a spy tale rendered by Beckett. Even her love affair, Karski’s marriage to Polish-born dancer Pola Nirenska, ends in her suicide.
We are in 2021, however. We don’t sip absinthe or sigh. We are ready to treat this art as a call to action. So what is a healthy response to work? What is this titular lesson?
There are many possibilities. Be careful not to turn away from the tragic and embarrassing news. Do something about it. Free and honor the messengers of truth.
The fanaticism of the battle? Advocacy for oppressed journalists and political prisoners? Help resettle refugees? Donate to candidates with vision and integrity? Resist authoritarianism, extremism and fake news?
All or part, whispers the ghost of the man of faith as we leave the theater, passing under an enlargement of his serious and dignified portrait. Make your choice. There is work to be done.
Duration: 90 minutes without intermission. Tickets are available here.