Based on his father’s experiences, playwright Shmuel Refael richly details the life of Albert Salvado. He, his wife and two young daughters were deported from the Greek city of Salonica, to Auschwitz–Birkenau during W.W. II.
Mr. Refael’s simple but well-crafted scenario takes place in a contemporary apartment in Israel, and has the elderly Salvado looking back at his past. This is theatrically achieved by having him directly addressing the audience. His best friend and fellow survivor is to be honored at the Holocaust memorial center Yad Vashem during a ceremony where he will light a torch. When he becomes incapacitated, that task falls to Salvado. This situation instigates a flood of painful reminiscences that explore his guilt at having survived.
Their 12-hour a day job in the concentration camp was forcing inmates into the gas chamber and then carting the corpses and arranging them in the crematorium to be burned. Refael blends the familiar details of these atrocities with the perspective of one person, with compelling results. This production employs an adaptation by Haim Idissis and an English translation by Howard Rypp.
Shuffling and kvetching, and putting his bandaged feet in a basin of water, Israeli actor Victor Attar initially conjures up hilarity as if he’s appearing in Neil Simon’s play, The Sunshine Boys. Gradually, through his expressive acting and Refael’s insightful writing, the horrors of the events are depicted.
Bald, with a flowing fringe of gray hair, piercing eyes and a prominent nose, Mr. Attar has the weary but animated essence of a Samuel Beckett character. Attar’s voice is melodious and realistically accented, vocally mining the piece’s often gallows humor as well as its dramatic elements. He is physically fluid and demonstrates superb clowning skills.
An emotionally draining highlight of his commanding performance is when he erupts with raw anguish at the removal of his dead friend’s concentration camp tattoo. That was done to comply with Orthodox Jewish burial beliefs. Equally shattering is his recalling the fates of his wife and daughters at Auschwitz.
Integral to the success of the production is Dana Levy’s evocative video art projections. These eschew any graphic Holocaust imagery. Instead there are a riveting collection of black and white sequences of trees, and period photographs of people from the era, including Salvado’s wife and children. A still of a little girl in a white hat incites a moving speech.
Director Geula Jeffet-Attar’s inventive staging perfectly utilizes Levy’s creations and combined with her varying positioning of Attar, yields numerous mesmerizing images on the minimally set stage designed by Mark Tambella. There’s a large vintage stuffed chair, a small table, a pole with ties, a clothes rack and a trunk. The effective basic lighting design by Juan Merchan is mostly a steady brightness with dim flourishes.
Yuval Mesner’s recorded incidental music is a spirited mixture of Greek-Judeo melodies featuring the accordion.
Golgotha is the site outside of Jerusalem where Jesus Christ was crucified. Here, it is referenced as a Sephardic Jewish phrase for suffering in Ladino. This is a Judeo-Spanish language indicative of the descendants of Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492.
In 2005, The United Nations General Assembly designated International Holocaust Remembrance Day as January 27. That was when the Russian Army liberated Auschwitz–Birkenau in 1945.
Golgotha is being presented to coincide with this date, and it is an engrossing, fitting and illustrious commemoration.
Golgotha (January 26-29, 2017)
La MaMa, 74A East Fourth Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, 646-430-5374 or visit http://www.lamama.org
Running time: 60 minutes with no intermission