There is a formula to narratives about the Holocaust and other moments of historical trauma. The opening scenes are charming, with a fair amount of comedy. The protagonist has a sense of humor, has struggled to achieve some success despite difficult odds, and has a core group of people who love him and are loved in return. Generally, our hero is shown to have some flaws: a tendency towards marital infidelity, perhaps. These flaws humanize him and make him more sympathetic. These relatively light-hearted moments are punctuated by moments of foreboding, reminding us of the tragic turn the story is about to take. Then the Nazis arrive, aided all too often by some of our hero’s friends and neighbors. Sympathy, guilt, remorse, and sadness follow, usually mitigated by a note of inspiration, nostalgia, and hope for the future.
Fabrik: The Legend of Moritz Rabinowitz, written and directed by the young theater company Wakka Wakka Productions, does not stray far from this time-tested formula and, indeed, audiences will find little that is unfamiliar in the script’s approach to history. Moritz Rabinowitz was a Polish émigré living in Norway, where he built a successful business and raised a family. He loved his adopted country and considered himself a patriot. He was also a vocal and articulate opponent of the wave of anti-semitism sweeping Europe. When the Nazis invaded Norway, he was captured and imprisoned in a Sachsenhausen, where he was reportedly beaten to death in 1942.
The spin on this iteration of the Holocaust tale, aside from its Norwegian setting, is the medium of the performance. Wakka Wakka’s inventive staging techniques, built around their Henson-ish puppets, supply a great deal of the charm of the production. The playfulness and virtuosity with which they explore the aesthetic and technical tools at their disposal make the story itself seem more unique than it otherwise might.
Three of Wakka Wakka’s four core company members serve as the cast: David Arkema, Kirjan Waage, and Gwendolyn Warnock (Gabrielle Brechner is the fourth member.) While it would be easy to write that the puppets (designed by Waage) are the stars of this production, the truth is that the puppets in and of themselves are not extraordinary; what impresses in this production is the implementation of the puppets, the skill and ingenuity with which they are employed.
In the opening scene, the Rabinowitz puppet is manipulated bunraku-style by all three performers (one controlling the head and right arm, one the left arm, and one the feet.) As new characters are introduced, the puppeteers split off from one another; the number of puppeteers controlling each puppet varies thereafter depending on the number of characters on stage and the technical demands of a given scene. Sometimes the performers are focused on the puppet, their faces turned in so as to deflect the attention of the audience. At other moments, the performers are face-out, drawing attention to themselves and to their medium as they perform alongside the puppets they control. Dream sequences, domestic scenes, song and dance numbers, political speeches, dances, violence, and transport by cars and boats are all depicted in the course of the play’s 85 minutes.
The small cast skillfully portrays a variety of characters in scenes both spoken and sung. Indeed, the Wakka Wakka ensemble prove to be more skillful actors than they are writers, clearly delineating characters that are somewhat flat in the script. While the story is powerful and the production impressive, the script does sometimes feel a little thin. While admirably avoiding the traps of self-importance and melodramatic excess, the writers have created only one fully-fleshed character; the rest are sketches.
Given that we have seen variations on this story so many times, it might well be asked why we need to see this one too. The answer lies, in part, in the somber promise to “never forget” but also extends into the story’s resonance with contemporary geopolitics. Two quotations in the program stand out in this regard. One is from former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who pointed out that even as we’ve made “never again” into a kind of mantra, genocide has proven alarmingly recurrent. The other is from Rabinowitz himself, who wrote in 1933 that “political isolationism, hatred, and the closing of borders are to blame for much of the tragedy in today’s world.”