November 21, 2019

Theater as deception

“The theatre has the power to both reveal the truth and hide the truth,” according to Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga, whose internationally acclaimed work, “Way to Heaven,” is currently being presented by the Odyssey Theatre.

The script, translated by David Johnston, is based on an incident that occurred in 1944, when a Red Cross delegation inspected the concentration camp at Theresienstadt, which, in reality, served as a center for the transportation of Jewish prisoners to Auschwitz and other death camps. (The phrase “way to heaven” is a translation of the German term “himmelweg,” that, in this context, signifies the path to the gas chambers.) The Germans had transformed the camp into a staged version of normal life to give the inspectors the impression that Theresienstadt was a humane, pleasant community for “privileged” Jews, complete with gardens, a synagogue, ample food and even a theater.

The ruse was so successful that it became the basis for a very favorable report. Mayorga remembered attending a lecture about the leader of the delegation and his findings, which were so advantageous to the Nazis.

“He said that he saw a ‘common’ town. I thought that such a man, who wanted to help the victims but ended by being an accomplice of the executioners, was, in a way, like many people I know. I thought he was somehow like me. And I decided immediately to write a play.”

Mayorga’s play is divided into five sections and goes back and forth in time. The first section, which takes place after the war, is a long monologue by the Red Cross representative (Michael McGee), who describes his inspection of several years past, vividly recalling the camp commandant (Norbert Weisser), who tried to present himself as a man of sophistication and cultured tastes by saying he felt more European than German, boasting about his library and spouting Spinoza. Underlying the inspector’s entire monologue is a desperate attempt to explain the conclusions he reached and the report he wrote.

“I think the Red Cross representative was conned,” director Ron Sossi said. “He made a big mistake, and he now feels enormously defensive about it. I think there’s an underlying guilt, but it comes out as defensiveness, where he tries constantly to justify his report, implying the question, ‘What else could I have done? No one gave me any signs that anything was wrong. Things were a little weird, but I couldn’t invent what wasn’t there.’ ”

Sossi added, “One could potentially say to him, ‘Because of your decision and what you wrote, hundreds of thousands of people died.’ So he’s in a different place. He’s trying to justify an action he committed in the past.”

Much of the play depicts the process of creating the elaborate deception. The commandant concocts a whole scenario and coerces the Jewish prisoner, Gershom Gottfried (Bruce Katzman), to help mount his theatrical fiction and to elicit convincing “performances” from the inmates chosen for the charade. The prisoners rehearse a series of fabricated “scenes,” carefully crafted down to the last detail, to represent everyday human interaction, including a lovers’ quarrel and children at play. It is particularly chilling that even as the trains transporting prisoners to their deaths can be heard in the background, the use of theatrical devices and the process of designing a theatrical piece, which includes setting just the right dialogue, using certain gestures and finding valid motivations, become the characters’ primary focus.

Sossi, who has done several productions about the Nazi era, chose to direct “Way to Heaven” because he felt it goes beyond being a docudrama about the Holocaust and examines certain universal themes.

“It’s about warped idealism, and fanaticism, and fantasy, and what is reality. I think this little play the commandant creates is almost a metaphor for Nazi Germany, because, at the end, when he’s so depressed that the play is over, it’s a depression due to the little hoax that he’s staged being over, but also Nazi Germany being over. And, what was real and what wasn’t real? It’s kind of philosophical, so that was appealing to me, the questions in the play, the questions about reality and illusion, and how people can be stirred in a certain direction because of their arch commitment to a certain ideal, even if that ideal is warped. 

“Survival is another theme,” Sossi added. “What people must do to survive, and the dilemma of being offered a kind of Sophie’s choice, because the Jewish man finally has to sort out only 100 people who will remain in the square. And he says, ‘What will happen to the rest of them?’ And the commandant says, ‘Well, we’ll have to send them to the infirmary,’ which is a metaphor for killing them.” 

Because the reality of mass extermination is cunningly hidden by the Germans, playwright Mayorga considers what he calls “the invisibility of horror” to be a major theme of this work.

“What misleads the Red Cross representative is not the quality of the masquerade he watches, but his own inability to look at the truth.”

Although he is not Jewish, Mayorga is a disciple of the Jewish philosopher/writer/critic Walter Benjamin and said he feels he has “an unrepayable debt to the Jewish spirit.”

“By ‘Jewish spirit’ I mean, above all, a morality based on the recognition of each human being’s infinite value.  I’m also referring to an especially acute talent for interpretation and criticism, one of whose forms is humor. I see this spirit in [Franz] Kafka, in [Franz] Rosenzweig, in [Emmanuel] Levinas, in [Jacques] Derrida and in the Marx Brothers. Of course, I also see it in Benjamin, whose critical thinking has molded me.

“I am personally very affected by the history of the Jewish people,” Mayorga continued, “especially the murder of 6 million European Jews who were executed by the Nazis, but with the complicity and indifference of many others. The memory of that event, which, in my judgment, obliges us to reinterpret all of European history prior to 1942, and then beyond, should become our greatest weapon in the fight against old and new forms of human oppression.”

“Way to Heaven” plays through Dec. 18 at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025. For schedule and to buy tickets online, go to or call the box office: (310) 477-2055, ext. 2.