Banned in Berlin

Who says you have to be Jewish to write a play about the Holocaust? Certainly not John O\'Keefe, author of the upcoming \"Times Like These,\" which takes place in Hitler\'s Berlin from 1934-1938.
October 24, 2002

Who says you have to be Jewish to write a play about the Holocaust? Certainly not John O’Keefe, author of the upcoming "Times Like These," which takes place in Hitler’s Berlin from 1934-1938. The plot focuses on how the life of intermarried actors changes when the wife is suddenly banned from the stage because she is Jewish. On the surface, the play, which is written with sensitivity, is a Holocaust piece and a love story; however, it encompasses what O’Keefe feels is a cycle of blame that has repeated itself in various incarnations throughout history. This time, Judaism just happened to be the target.

The two-person play, which premiered last March at the Cinnabar Theatre in Petaluma under the title "Crystal Night," is the veteran playwright’s second of three productions focusing on this era. All three works deal with the concept of seduction and what happens when one’s freedoms are taken away.

The author said the common thread in all three stories is his own fascination with the period. "It has to do with resonances Americans and Europeans should be aware of in times like these — especially in times like now," said O’Keefe, alluding to the issues the United States has confronted in the last year, including terrorism and war.

The story in "Times Like These" is loosely based on the life of Joachim Gottschalk, one of Germany’s most popular film actors who was increasingly ostracized because his wife was Jewish. The 62-year-old O’Keefe also borrowed relationship dynamics and themes from literature and biographies to develop his characters. The San Francisco-based writer uses the couple’s relationship as a metaphor for the changes happening in Berlin. While a new dictatorship takes over the outside world, there is a parallel in the struggles of actress Meta Wolff (played by Laurie O’Brien) and her less-talented actor husband, Oskar Weiss (played by Norbert Weisser).

Meta, Jewish by birth, was raised Protestant, but must confront her Jewishness when the realities of the war affect her safety and her relationship with her Aryan husband. When the Third Reich begins to alter a production of "Hamlet" to filter propaganda, Meta is able to, in a sense, "fight the power" by satirizing the Nazi regime. Using sly acting tips and suggestions, Meta, as the play’s director, is able to poke fun at the Nazis with help from Oskar, who has the starring role in the odd version of the Shakespeare play.

O’Keefe said that the issues explored in "Times Like These" have remained current since the era of the Holocaust. "That period of time has not really stopped and the effect has continued to 2002," said the author. "I think it’s important to understand that it was the Jews [who were targeted] during that period and it could be anybody the next period. It just depends who the scapegoat is. We must have a catastrophe, we must have someone to blame and we must frighten people in that country. It’s an ancient and prehistoric premise."

While O’Keefe said that these horrific events are simply part of a larger pattern, he is clearly sensitive to the plight of the Jews. "I think that we all must be conscious of the Holocaust — and there have been subsequent Holocausts." As O’Keefe is an honorary Jew of sorts ("Fifty percent of the people I know in theater are Jewish. One of my Jewish friends wants to bar mitzvah me!"), like Meta, he had a tendency to ignore religious differences, until, like his heroine, he had a reason to explore the topic.

The writer’s first Holocaust-era play, "Glamour," was inspired by the eerie historic events that occurred when Robert Graves ("I, Claudius") and the notorious Laura Riding fled Europe to stay with Schuyler Jackson in a remote Pennsylvania farmhouse. O’Keefe has written over 40 plays and won three Bay Area Critic’s Circle Awards, six Drama-Logue awards and two L.A. Weekly Awards, among other theatrical accolades.

Through the relatability of his characters, O’Keefe successfully illustrates how people can be easily seduced by propaganda. "Rather than using the paradigm of marching armies, I used the paradigm of personal relationships so we can understand personally how people become fascists," he said. "It’s a microcosmic way of looking at how individuals insert themselves into situations."

"Times Like These" will run Thursdays through Sundays at 8 p.m. through Nov. 16 at 2100 Square Feet, 5615 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles. There is wheelchair access and free parking. For more information, call (323) 692-2652.

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