BWW Review: EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED at Ensemble Theatre Company
World War II was recent enough that there are still living survivors--but distant enough that many stories live on only through details passed down through subsequent generations. Jonathan Saffron Foer's well-received novel, Everything is Illuminated, about searching for his grandfather's past, shows a young writer seeking the frayed remnants of his family history. With only a photograph of the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis, browned with age, to guide him, he sets off for the Ukraine. In the theatrical version of the show, adapted by Simon Block and directed at Ensemble Theatre Company by Jonathan Fox, we travel with Jonathan (Jeremy Kahn) across the Ukraine in search of lost mythology. He is joined and (mis)directed by two native Ukrainians: a very old driver (Adrian Sparks) and his grandson, Jonathan's translator (Matt Wolpe).
Conceptually, the play weaves a fascinating yarn: three men, all of whom are connected (some in secret or unrealized ways) to the Nazi occupation of the now-lost town of Trochenbrod, set off toward shared history. Trochenbrod, once a shtetl of Jewish peasants, then a Ukranian farming community, is a town the old driver knows too well; it's a part of his past that he's not shared with his grandson, and one he'd like to forget. Jonathan, the American outsider who bears the tangential weight of his relative's story, seeks a physical place to attach to the folklore he's been creating in place of a family history lost to genocide.
Ensemble's production features many interesting aspects in this search for identity: a grumpy grandpa with a dark secret; an old Ukrainian woman whose mind has been warped by war and isolation; an underdog translator with a tepid mastery of English; and an emotionally clumsy college kid who mistakes the trauma of his family for personal depth. But the adaptation from novel to stage is clunky, clouding an otherwise dramatic origin story.
The point of view is tenuous all around: more often than not it's Alex we're hearing--he has the biggest emotional journey to traverse and the most potential for character development. The problem here is the language barrier, which is both a recognized comic line and a narrative issue. While ample effort was taken to establish the difference in languages across the Ukrainians speaking amongst themselves (in non-accented English) and speaking in broken English to Jonathan (in a Ukrainian accent), Alex narrates his point of view to the audience in broken, accented English, leaving us to wonder why he's not speaking his native tongue when telling his own story. Most of the grandfather's story is presented all at once through an all-secrets-revealed end-of-play monologue. Jonathan has the strangest narrative--he spends much of his time writing journal entries that will eventually become his novel; invented lore of his family in Trochenbrod that's acted out on stage with characters from hundreds of years ago that converse directly with their creator. It's an idea that may work in a novel, but it's unwieldy on stage due to the added layer of non-communication that isolates these characters from each other further, even though they are experiencing the same story of discovery.
Production-wise, the set (by Francoise-Pierre Couture) is beautiful, with a horizon that reflects the splendor and sadness of a countryside populated by ghosts. Piles of books and random articles turn the stage into a deceased hoarder's estate sale. In terms of performance, Wolpe is appropriately dopey in the beginning and becomes grounded as secrets are revealed; Kahn is faux-academic to the point of being befittingly annoying; and Sparks is suitably gruff, reflecting a deeply buried trauma. However, the pace of the show stalls frequently in the jerky rotation of point of view. Without a clear idea of whose story we are investing in, it's difficult to dig in the way the subject matter demands.
Finally, the show ends with Jonathan reading a portion from his bestselling novel, an over-the-top flowers-and-hearts narrative that is apparently "often requested." Not only does this leave the audience confused about who's story we've been watching all this time, but it hits the self-congratulatory nail so far into the board that the character becomes almost completely unlikeable, undoing a play's worth of good will. It dilutes the powerful story of the Nazi invasion that left Trochenbrod in a state of ruin so utter that the only remainders are jars of valuables buried in vacant fields; and a woman with a catalog of the dead in boxes on her bookshelf and a mind too scattered to put the puzzle together. The story is interesting, but the treatment sorely reduces the manifestation of tragedy and deliverance.
Ensemble Theatre Company Presents:
EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED
Directed by Jonathan Fox