by Hedy Weiss
January 24, 2009
We have become fully accustomed to seeing the plays of Shakespeare reimagined—set in times and places that correspond as much to our own world as to the Elizabethan era. So it makes complete sense that the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, as part of its World's Stage series, is now presenting The Investigation."
In this brilliantly "superimposed drama," the horrifying verbatim texts from the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials—which, from 1963 to 1965, brought charges against 22 mid-level officials at the Nazis' Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp—are acted out by seven actors from Rwanda and neighboring African countries.
In evoking the murder of 6 million Jews and others, including many Soviet POWS, these actors simultaneously call to mind a more recent genocide of their own—the estimated slaughter, in 1984, of 800,000 Rwandans, when, once again, the world stood by and did nothing. As a harrowing program note tells us, the family of director-actor Dorcy Rugamba (who, with Isabelle Gyselinx, has compressed the original transcripts of playwright Peter Weiss' (no relation) five-hour docudrama into just 80 harrowing minutes), was massacred on the first day of the genocide.
The narration of the unimaginable savagery in the camps is certainly not new, but as spoken here with the utmost simplicity and bluntness by these formidable actors (whose marvelous faces keep you riveted), it remains shocking almost beyond words. Of course, the instruments and politics of such brutality differ from country to country, but the sense of the perpetrators' denial, and the survivors' memories of living death, have a grim commonality. The play surely serves as a form of catharsis for the actors. For the rest of us, it is a rude reawakening.