Lebensraum

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Saturday March 30, 2013

Lebensraum

The brand-new Hub Theatre Company of Boston has just a few simple mandates, but the main one is the most difficult and the most daring: Never allow money to come between art and the audience.

For this reason, the Hub Theatre Company has decided to make all of its productions "Pay What You Can" for every performance, rather than setting specific ticket prices. It's a courageous business model to adopt, and in keeping with this fearlessness the company has chosen Israel Horovitz's bold, searing "Lebensraum" as its very first production.

The play, directed by company co-founder John Geoffrion, imagines that in the year 2000 the German chancellor extends an open invitation to six million Jews worldwide -- first come, first served -- to immigrate to Germany, where they will enjoy the benefits and status of full citizenship. It's meant to be Germany's way of erasing the blot on the nation's history, a means of making up for the horrors of the Holocaust. It's also meant to be a way toward rebuilding Germany's Jewish community.

As evil as it was, the Holocaust did not emerge from a vacuum. At root, the play suggests, the human psyche is feral and selfish; economic pressures similar to the ones that existed during the time of the Nazi regime cause an instant backlash, as workers grumble that the influx of new citizens, whatever their religion or ethnicity, will displace existing workers and disrupt the social order. Others worry about race-mixing, the eternal bugaboo for the prejudiced.

Even among Jews, the idea proves inflammatory: One elderly rabbi is attacked and murdered at his own place of worship by a Holocaust survivor who is enraged at the very idea that Jews should return to the land that spawned a genocidal effort directed at them.

For a handful of Jews, however, the invitation seems like a golden opportunity. One secular Jewish father, a resident of Gloucester, Massachusetts, reasons that the Germans must have work lined up for the new citizens. He's been out of work for three years, and he's willing to relocate in order to reclaim the dignity of having a decent job. It's his energy and enthusiasm that sets a standard and proves to be the example that attracts a wave of Jewish immigration back to Germany -- but his success is also emblematic of the fears that xenophobic German workers speak out about.

As tensions rise and neo-Nazi sentiments begin to surface, a secret organization of aggressive, combative Jewish immigrants coalesces, a group that's willing to reveal itself with lethal force the moment anyone attempts any sort of new anti-Semitic attack.

In the midst of all of this, however, love between a young Jewish transplant and a German woman takes root and blossoms. The play acknowledges that love is not the answer to all things in this world (there's a quite funny passage in which the first "new citizens" are turned away temporarily because they are a married gay couple from France), but it's this same eyes-open approach that brings a ring of truth to an otherwise improbable story.

The Hub Theatre Company conveys this sweeping play using only bare-bones props and costuming. Three actors (Jaime Carrillo, Lauren Elias, and Kevin Paquette) play all the roles; three coat trees sport all the costumes that the trio need to transform into their various roles. One piece of furnishing, a wooden trunk, serves multiple purposes. A handful of props come into play, including a couple of puppets.

The performance space is nothing more than a raised platform in an auditorium at the First Church in Boston. Michael Clark Wonson's lighting design and sound by Jason E. Weber help transform this space into another world.

This is theater of a naked and essential sort, relying on the persuasive power of performance and storytelling. From time to time, Paquette stands off to the side to narrate events; this is often a risky device, but it works here because it fits in so well with the overall minimalism of the production.

Horovitz's play captivates through its sheer audacity, and once he's got your attention Horovitz leads the way through a complex, emotionally charged subject in a novel and illuminating manner. Never forgetting is one thing, but continuing to care (and eventually finding some way to stop repeating this heartbreaking bit of history) is quite another. Horovitz doesn't shy from the sharp corners and hard questions that come with the territory he treads, and that allows him to identify sources for optimism.

This mesmerizing production marks a promising debut for Boston's newest theater company. Already, Hub has got the rest of its inaugural season lined up, a program that will include "Beer & Bard," a staged reading of Shakespeare, at the Trident Cafe, a Paula Plum-directed project titled "Love, Loss, and What I Wore," "Goodly Creatures," and "Sand Mountain." At least two of the upcoming productions will see the group return to First Church, which works well as a venue for theater.

Boston is a city bristling with energetic small theater --†maybe too bristling sometimes. This first offering from the Hub Theatre Company is a reminder that when it comes to visionary theater, there's no such thing as too much. Go see what they have to offer. Pay what you can -- and be generous. This new company deserves the love of Boston's audiences.

"Lebensraum" continues through April 14 at the First Church in Boston, 665 Marlborough Street. All shows are Pay What You Can.

Performance Schedule: Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 4:00 p.m. except for Sunday March 31, when the show will be at 7:00 p.m. There will also be a Thursday evening performance April 4 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and more information, please visit www.hubtheatreboston.org

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.