‘Walking to Buchenwald’: an old play made new

September 28, 2017
Mandy Schneider (Schiller), Amielynn Abellera (Arjay), Laura James (Mildred) and Ben Martin (Roger) in “Walking to Buchenwald.” Photo by Darrett Sanders

While a family of four Americans journeys across Europe, the United States is on the brink of Armageddon. A dangerous, distrustful president has declared martial law and is threatening to plunge the country into war. Prophetically, the Americans receive some frightening news just as they are arriving at the ruins of the Buchenwald concentration camp.

Tom Jacobson, the creator of this scenario, might seem to be writing with present day headlines as his signpost. In fact, one of the unusual elements of Jacobson’s “new” play, “Walking to Buchenwald” — in its world premiere produced by the Open Fist Theatre Company at the Atwater Village Theatre — is that it is set in a recognizable present day but was written 14 years ago. Apart from updating some of the references to reflect changes in technology, Jacobson had to change very little of what he penned in 2003.

“This is not a play written about Trump. It was written by someone 14 years ago who barely knew Trump,” Jacobson said of the play that runs through Oct. 21. “The audience brings their current situation into the theater. That’s what has changed. The audience has 14 years of experience that they didn’t have when this play was written, so they’re bringing in very different emotions. That kind of excites me.”

Written during the administration of George W. Bush, who served two terms through early 2009, “Buchenwald” received several readings but not a fully produced staging. Jacobson said the play was not considered especially “urgent” during President Barack Obama’s years in office. Shortly before the 2016 presidential election, Open Fist held a couple of readings of “Buchenwald” as fundraisers. Even amid the assumption that Hillary Clinton would assume the Oval Office, “Walking to Buchenwald” generated plenty of discussion and, yes, a certain amount of fear among its audiences.

After Trump got into office, Jacobson’s play seemed relevant again, and Open Fist committed to a staging.

“You can assume the president is Republican, but there’s almost no discussion of his policies; they just don’t like him,” Jacobson said. “If Hillary had won the election, the play clearly would not have been about her. It would have to be about some other president.”

The play charts a family’s trip through England to France and ultimately to Germany. In a serious-comic odyssey that includes fantastic encounters, the four travelers take in the sights, mingle with locals and experience what it feels like to be viewed as stereotypically “ugly Americans.” Indeed, the more aggressive the unseen president gets, the worse the four travelers — Schiller, Arjay, Roger and Mildred — are treated.

The L.A.-based Jacobson is one of the city’s most inventive playwrights, and his plays invariably experiment with theatrical form. A previous work, “Ouroboros,” can be staged as either a comedy or a tragedy, depending on the order in which the scenes are played. “Captain of the Bible Quiz Team,” staged in various churches last year, had four actors — two male and two female of mixed ethnicities — playing the same character.

In “Buchenwald,” Schiller and partner Arjay are played by two men during some performances and by two women in others. Toward the end of the run, some mixing and matching among the cast members will make Schiller and Arjay a heterosexual couple.

“One of the characters talks about it in ‘Buchenwald,’ how theater changes from performance to performance depending on who is in the audience or if an actor does something different,” Jacobson said. “That’s something that’s unique to theater that doesn’t happen in movies or novels. I like to play around with that.”

Its political landscape notwithstanding, “Walking to Buchenwald” is loosely based on the playwright’s experiences. Jacobson traveled to Europe in 1998 and then again with his parents in 2002, shortly before they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. During his visit to Germany, Jacobson stumbled into Buchenwald through an indirect route and discovered some rather unsettling parallels to a place much closer to home: the Japanese internment camp at Manzanar in California.

“It looks so similar to Manzanar, which was built at the same time and for a somewhat similar purpose,” he said. “If you have been to a Nazi concentration camp and to a Japanese internment camp, it’s sort of doubly difficult because you realize what happened in your own country. My awareness is heightened and it’s very personal to me because I live here.”

Jacobson is not Jewish. Nor is Schiller, the trip-planner and tour guide of “Buchenwald,” who is essentially the playwright’s onstage persona, who says, “You can’t come all the way to Germany and not go to a concentration camp. It’s like visiting L.A. and not going to Disneyland.” Schiller’s father, Roger (played by Ben Martin), is frightened at the prospect, but agrees that the visit is a moral obligation. “Some things you just have to do,” he says in the play.

Mandy Schneider, who plays Schiller in the female (“Die Damen”) cast, can relate to the ambivalence. Schneider previously worked in Nuremberg and Hanover but did not visit any Holocaust-related museums or memorials. She has visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and is planning a trip to the Museum of Tolerance as part of her character research.

“There’s always been a little bit of out of sight, out of mind,” said Schneider, who is Jewish. “Today, since we’re in such crazy times, it made me become even more aware that this does exist. It’s always existed, but seeing it on the news and whatnot, it just reminds me, ‘OK, we need to remember this.’ ”

 “Walking to Buchenwald” continues through Oct. 21 at the Atwater Village Theatre. For more information call (323) 882-6912 or go to OpenFist.org 

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