BWW Review: THE SOAP MYTH at Sarasota Opera
The Sarasota Opera House, in conjunction with the Florida Holocaust Museum and the Tampa Jewish Community Centers & Federation presented a reading of The Soap Myth written by Jeff Cohen and directed by Pam Berlin. The story is set more than 50 years after the end of World War II, and dramatizes the warm friendship that develops between a young Jewish journalist and a cantankerous Holocaust Survivor on a crusade about the "soap" displayed in Holocaust museums. In question is, did the Nazis make soap from the corpses of murdered Jews? The play grapples with the evil of anti-Semitism masquerading as Holocaust denial. The Soap Myth asks provocative questions like "Who has the right to write history?" and "How does a survivor survive surviving?" The reading commemorates International Holocaust Remembrance Day and dramatizes the powerful confrontation between a survivor's memory and contradicting historical evidence, or lack thereof.
William Shulman, president of the Association of Holocaust Organizations states "The Soap Myth is a powerful confrontation between survivor memory and historical memory as well as a scathing depiction of the insidiousness of sophisticated Holocaust denial. It is a remarkably effective teaching tool." The Jewish Standard declares "It is an intense evening - in 85 minutes, The Soap Myth manages to deal with complicated concepts - the definition of history and truth; degrees of human depravity and duplicity; and insidious Holocaust denial. At the same time, it captures the humanity of its characters, and delivers perfect archetypes."
This jarring drama starred seven-time Emmy Award and five-time Golden Globe Award winner Ed Asner, known for his roles as Lou Grant in "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," Santa Claus in the Will Farrell comedy "Elf," and Carl Fredrickson in the smash animated feature "Up." Asner is gut-wrenchingly convincing as Milton Saltzman, a Holocaust survivor who witnessed the soap being made and transported throughout Europe. He remembered the Nazi's handing bars of such soaps to Jews on their way to the sealed chambers that functioned alternately as gas chambers and showers rooms. One never knew if they would be showered or gassed. He retained a piece of soap all these years to present as "evidence". Now he is an old man beaten down, frustrated, but not defeated. He has one purpose left before he dies and that passion drives him to bring this story to life and prove its authenticity. You will ride the gamut of emotions with Asner and feel his character's anger and frustration.
Playing opposite Asner is Liba Vaynberg who is brilliant as young journalist Annie Blumberg assigned to write a story about Saltzman. When first meeting Milton, Annie finds him to be gruff, cranky and quarrelsome. After spending time with him, Annie soon she finds herself caught between the compassion and empathy she feels for Milton and the belief that distinguished scholars of the Holocaust uphold. They refuse to give credibility to the mere conjecture of such a story despite the evidence of eyewitness testimony provided by Nazis and British prisoners of war at the Nuremberg trial who worked in the soap manufacturing plants. Miss Vaynberg has acting and writing credits to her name and carries an impressive BA in Molecular Biology from Yale and is bilingual in English and Russian.
Mega-talent Tovah Feldshuh was riveting in her dual roles as Esther Feinman and Brenda Goodsen. Goodsen who represented a number of Holocaust deniers and appears in the reading to demonstrate the evil of anti-Semitism. Goodsen delivers a speech that incenses the audience by minimizing the Holocaust and coming to the conclusion that the Jews brought it on themselves. Miss Feldshuh came prepared to grab your attention and stir your emotions. She is a six-time Emmy and Tony nominee and has won a number of Drama Desk, Outer Critics circle, DramaLogue awards and the Helen Hayes and Lucille Lortel awards for best actress. Her credits on Broadway include such shows such as Yentl, Golda's Balcony, Cyrano and Pippin. A few of her many TV and film credits include Law And Order, The Walking Dead, Kissing Jessica Stein, and A Walk on the Moon.
Ned Eisenberg was clever in the rendering of 5 characters he played, (including a comic), each with a unique personality and linguistic accent of nationality. Eisenberg acting chops have served him well. Audiences have enjoyed his many performances on Broadway in such shows as, Six Degrees of Separation, Rocky, Golden Boy, on television in Blue Bloods, Law And Order, Person of Interest, and Madame Secretary, and in national and regional tours in Guys And Dolls, Merchant of Venice and Lost in Yonkers. He easily switched between his characters and their accents with perfection.
I think right off the bat if you are not familiar with this conjecture and never heard that this possibly took place; you would be stunned. Throughout history proof of atrocities of unimaginable, excruciating torment were recorded and even recreated for film, theatre and television, lest we forget. Yet this particular horror was relegated to a mere notion, an opinion or supposition that it may or may not have been true. Why? The reading concludes, lack of evidence, but I still have to ask why this wasn't talked about more and brought to the forefront. This sobering, eye-opening production does not actually question whether the soap myth really occurred; it offers instead that since this particular crime against the Jews was not meticulously documented to be a proven fact, that it unfortunately could be the winning card in the hands of people who alleged that the Holocaust really never happened at all. If one thing is proven wrong, it casts a shadow of doubt on all of the other "alleged incidents". Although The Soap Myth is a work of fiction, it is, in the words of the program, "inspired by real people and real events as well as an article written by Josh Rolnick in Moment Magazine profiling Holocaust survivor Morris Spitzer.
The intensity of this subject matter and vivid portrayal of each character by this stellar cast is both heartwarming and heart wrenching. A Q & A followed the reading and I was left with a haunting question someone had asked as to whether the soaps were ever tested. If these soaps exist in museums, could we not, with the technology we have today finally answer this question? Could tests be run to determine the contents? We are living in a time and place now where there is so much documentation and proof verifying that not only did the horrors of the holocaust happen to thousands of innocent people, but we have eyewitnesses and survivors who can attest to all of the many atrocities in which they were subjected. Perhaps today the fear of whether the soap myth happened or not won't change the course of history as we know it, but rather add to the truths of this and perhaps many other abominable acts that may be buried in the hearts of survivors who are afraid to speak out. Surviving survival is a blessing. And a curse.
For more information on The Soap Myth visit www.thesoapmyth.com
For more information on the Florida Holocaust Museum visit www.flholocaustmuseum.org
For information on upcoming shows at Sarasota Opera House visit www.sarasotaopera.org