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Theater review: 'Way to Heaven' at the Odyssey Theatre

October 6, 2011 | 10:00 am

The Third Reich’s mastery of stagecraft is a chilling fact of history, but the forced performances of Theresienstadt’s Jewish prisoners may be Hitler’s darkest perversion of theater. Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga’s stiff, harrowing “Way to Heaven,” now at the Odyssey Theatre, details this strange acting exercise with the rigor of a surgeon.

The audience enters the stark, shadowy theater space to see a desk, a bookcase, a bench and a ramp: banal exhibits of a lost world that then comes to life. (The scenic design is by Frederica Nascimento.) A Red Cross worker (Michael McGee) recounts his uncanny visit to the camp — a trip he must make again and again in his mind, as he failed to see what was right in front of him: that the contented children and smiling young lovers of Theresienstadt’s Jewish community were putting on a show for visiting officials to quell rumors of Nazi atrocities. Bad actors faced with expulsion and certain death; these prisoners were literally giving the performance of their lives. The bulk of the play is a two-hander in which the commandant (Norbert Weisser) and a prisoner (Bruce Katzman) “collaborate” on scripting and blocking this bizarre production. 

Mayorga’s outrage can become oppressive, and sometimes director Ron Sossi treats his subject matter with too much reverence. (Both are understandable responses, but they turn drama into preaching.) “Way” isn’t easy viewing, but there is something bracing about its clarity and moral power. Mayorga’s true-life fable anatomizes our persistent urge to see what we want to, instead of the truth. 

-- Charlotte Stoudt 

“Way to Heaven,” Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. See schedule for performance times. Ends Dec. 18. $25 and $30. (310) 477-2055 or Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

Photo:: Norbert Weisser, left, and Bruce Katzman in "Way to Heaven." Credit: Enci.