Lawrence.com weblogs Centerstage. Posted by John Phythyon November 30, 2012 at 9:59 a.m.
“If the Whole Body Dies” engrossing and educational
It is a daunting task trying to tell the life story of one of history’s more important but largely forgotten figures in an hour’s time. That’s what guest artist, Robert Skloot, and a cast of 10 KU students pull off in “If the Whole Body Dies: Raphael Lemkin and the Treaty against Genocide.”
Skloot, who wrote the one-act play, stars as the titular Lemkin, a Polish-born Jew, who escaped the Holocaust by immigrating to the U.S. in 1941, coined the word, “genocide,” and went on to help the U.N. craft its convention outlawing genocide and lobbying member nations to sign on. Skloot’s dramatic biography gives us a tortured Lemkin — a man laboring in obscurity yet quietly succeeding on the world stage.
The play is surreal. It takes place largely in Lemkin’s mind, alternating between mental conversations with Anne Frank and his mother — murdered in a Nazi concentration camp along with 48 other members of his family — and real-life correspondences with Senator William Proxmire from Wisconsin — and others. The narrative moves back and forth through time, never telling us exactly when in Lemkin’s life it is happening but managing to maintain a clear story of the struggle to have the treaty ratified.
Skloot gives a tour-de-force performance as Lemkin. From the moment the play opens, it's obvious this is a man with a singular obsession. He speaks of the influence of “Quo Vadis” on his early thinking and his inability to understand why the Romans would try to wipe out the early Christians. Naturally, he is equally confused when the Nazis attempt to do the same to his own people. He is proud of himself for inventing the word that describes this (Lemkin held Ph.D.s in law and linguistics), and he is mystified that it is so hard to get civilized nations to agree to a law prohibiting something so fundamentally inhuman as genocide.
As the play progresses, Lemkin receives call after call from creditors demanding he pay them what is owed. He confesses he travels so much and is so obsessed with his work he forgets to pay his bills. His meager professor’s salary at Yale is hardly enough to cover all his expenses.
By the end of the show, one wonders if he hasn’t gone insane with frustration. Skloot’s Lemkin rages against the unfairness of it all. He is continually rejected by publishers, who don’t think they can sell a book on the history of genocide or the autobiography of a man who crusades against it. He has been nominated five times for the Nobel Peace Prize, but he never wins. The alleged worldwide leader in human rights — the U.S. — refuses to adopt his treaty.
Skloot is in command of his performance at every moment. He portrays the Lear-like Lemkin with grace and anger, with wisdom and frustration. One expects a playwright to know his characters best, but Skloot plays an historical personage. He has obviously done his homework well — not just in crafting a tight and elegant script, but also in his characterization of the obscure Lemkin.
Several strong performances from the supporting cast enhance the production. Festus Wade Shaughnessy IV is sharp as the slick Proxmire. He is friendly and interested in advancing Lemkin’s cause, but he is quick to end each call as soon as Lemkin presses for a meeting.
Janice Craft is both endearing and heartrending as Lemkin’s mother. She alternately scolds him for his obsessions and inspires him to work harder to bring justice to her memory.
The play is curiously directed by John Gronbeck-Tedesco. He conceives it as a radio drama, setting it on a soundstage. The show is presented as a staged reading, with a narrator (Margaret Hanzlick) reading the stage directions. At curtain, she welcomes the audience to a “live rehearsal” of the drama, which she says will be presented on NPR on December 31, but there is no mention of this in the program, so one assumes that is just part of the play’s presentation. To maintain the conceit that this is a rehearsal for a radio play, there is a foley artist (James Teller), and there are several stoppages to “correct” someone’s performance.
None of this adds anything to the presentation of the show, and images of Lemkin and of Nazi concentration camps projected onto a screen on the back wall belie the radio-drama fiction. It does give the actors a reason to work script in hand, an important consideration given that Skloot arrived in town only two days before opening night, which likely limited rehearsals.
Staging aside, “If the Whole Body Dies” is an engrossing drama that sheds light on one of history’s more forgotten figures. Only seven people attended Lemkin’s funeral in 1959, and little was known about him until recently. Skloot’s play is not only well written and acted but it also does a great service to history.
“If the Whole Body Dies” runs Dec. 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 at the Inge Theatre on the Kansas University campus.