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by Margaret Croyden

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

"Andorra" By Max Frisch
Directed by Liviu Ciulei
Translated by Michael Feingold
Lucille Lortel Theater
Opened April 2,2002
Reviewed April 24, 2002 by Margaret Croyden

Max Frisch, the Swiss playwright wrote "Andorra" in 1961 well after the end of Fascism and Nazism. Having lived through that period, especially the catastrophic Holocaust, Frisch was haunted by the meaning of these events. He was particularly obsessed with the presence, or absence, of guilt of the Germans, and those Europeans who abetted Nazism, and who directly or indirectly perpetrated a vicious anti-Semitism. Which is the subject of this unusual play.

In a letter to his publisher in 1961, Max Frisch wrote: "What the play deals with ...is not the Eichmanns (the top German Nazi tried and executed in Israel for war crimes), but us and our friends. It deals with those who are clearly not war criminals, with half-joking anti-Semites--in other words, it deals with the millions who made it possible (speaking schematically) for Hitler not to become a painter."

Produced by Theatre For A New Audience, "Andorra" only too clearly opens up the chilling subject of anti-Semitism--like an old plague that was never eradicated--a plague erupting in Europe and the Middle East, even today. The evening proved to be one of the most difficult times I have had in the theater, because one could not help thinking about the real events happening right now in France, Tunisia, Belgium, the Middle east, and other places where anti-Semitism has once again become fashionable. Or if not fashionable, tolerated.

Clearly the evening hit a nerve with the audience. There was not a sound in the theater during the two and a half hours of the play. People were shocked to hear and see bigots on stage, shocked to hear virulent anti-Semitic remarks from fictional characters and horrified that it all sounded familiar--and unbearable. Most of all it created a sense of anxiety and fear like a bad dream, a nightmare, unfolding in front of us. Jews were being rounded up in Europe, Jews were being beaten up, tortured, and murdered on the stage. It is only a play, I thought. But then again it is happening at this moment someplace in the world.

"Andorra" is actually a small country just on the border of Spain, but in a note, the author said he was not portraying that nation, but was using it as a prototype for a nameless, innocent country--which sounds more like Switzerland, where Frisch was born. The plot is about a young man, Andrei, who has been rescued by a local school master from the Blackshirts on the border who are engaged in a mass slaughter of Jews. The school master adopts the boy, presumably to save his life, and brings him up to believe he is Jewish. In a rather convoluted plot, it turns out that Andrei is not Jewish but the illegitimate son of the school teacher who wanted to hide his extra-marital affair and the birth of an illegitimate son.

Growing up in town full of bigots, Andrei tries to live a normal life; he wants to become a carpenter, but is stopped along the way because he is a Jew. Thrown out of carpentry school, ostracized by all the townspeople, made miserable in everything he wants to do and abused everywhere, he is, at last, told the real truth about himself: he is not really Jewish. But having adopted the role of the Jew, he refuses to give it up. Neither does the town: they insist he is Jewish and not Christian like them. And so as a Jew he must be isolated, beaten up, and tortured. Finally when the Blackshirts take over this "innocent" town, its inhabitants must pass before the "Jew Detector," who in one of the most chilling scenes in the theater, utters not a word. He just sits there, as the townspeople grovel before him, and "detects" who is Jewish.

The play is staged in the barest way, without any flourishes, or sparkling scenery. The set is rather shabby; perhaps it was meant to be, and Liviu Ciulei's direction is far too show; nevertheless, the irony and the terror of the play come through. David Barlow in the role of the leading character, Andrei, is quite wonderful. A darling looking young man, he has the right demeanor, the right behavior, and the right emotionality for the part without being maudlin or sentimental. He is, in fact, extremely moving. And he carries the play. In the role of the school teacher, Boris McGiver is also compelling but the part is underwritten. One doesn't know exactly what his relationship was to his wife, or to his lover, and what made him perpetrate this lie. Although the plot is somewhat melodramatic it hardly mattered. The point was made and forcefully too. And Michael Feingold's translation is first-rate.

Theatre for a New Audience, under the artistic leadership of Jeffrey Horowitz is certainly a new kind of theater: unafraid to stage a play which, when it opened originally in New York, was considered a flop. In the theater world today, these kinds of plays are rare. Broadway is consumed with revivals and silly adaptations from famous screen plays. So it is to the credit of Horowitz to produce a work that might not sell well, but is an unforgettable piece of important theater. It is a wake up call, it is a memory call, and it behooves us to remember well. [Croyden]

Margaret Croyden's most recent book is a memoir "In the Shadow of the Flame: Three Journeys" (Continuum). A new book "Conversations With Peter Brook" will be published next year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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