Chilling Night At The Theater
The Neuhaus Stage has been transformed into an abandoned salt mine for Kenneth Lin’s new play at the Alley Theatre, Intelligence Slave.
“You should be grateful they moved your factory down here, you know,” Fritz tells Curt Herzstark the protagonist played so convincingly by Andrew Weems. As an audience member, I wasn’t so sure I was grateful.
Under the convincingly gray chipped rock, already in the opening scene I felt like yet another prisoner working in the mine. It is at first claustrophobic, a chilling setting to experience a play. But then I let my attention turn to the lead character’s surname. A clever choice, I thought, meaning something like “strong heart” in English. And as the action progressed, it soon became evident the Curt was going to need all the strength he could muster.
Lin wrote his richly complex and highly metaphorical drama during a residency at Long Island’s Nassau County Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center. Free of music and spectacle-oriented stage effects, it is hardly a sentimental work. In fact, the dialogue progresses the action as much as the nuanced body language. Both the victims and the perpetrators in the story have a certain introspective, meditative quality about them. I wanted to know more about its evolution.
During a telephone interview with the playwright, I began with the most obvious question. What new light does your play shed on the Holocaust?
Lin explained that his research in Long Island focused in part on the Hitler youth, “the poor thirteen and fourteen-year-old boys who were sent to die,” as Lin described them. “The Hitler Youth were the most ardent soldiers in battle. They fought with the ferocity of people who were afraid of monsters, and they had been convinced that Jews were monsters,” he added.
Clearly, Lin is interested in work that moves dialogue about the Holocaust further forward, rather than treading on territory that has already been explored.
Even the play’s protagonist, Curt, is part Aryan. He hopes to be “Aryan-ized” by the Gestapo as the result of his invention, a hand-held calculator that runs without electricity. But as the end of the war approaches, he tries in vain to prolong completion of the device, fearing it could mean his certain death.
“Our play focuses on how these characters survive,”Lin said. “One of the things I love is how it is about really shifting alliances. This person created this calculator, and he lives one day longer by withholding the solution. I tried to create characters who are just as bewildered about where they ended up. Our evil character wishes he could have been an auto mechanic, he never planned to be killing people in a mine. He is trapped. The play says that he is trapped just as much as the Jewish persons in the camp above the mine.”
Enter Finn Frey, the Hitler youth who will “help” Curt finish his invention in the tiny room, and thereupon embarks an extended and almost entirely metaphorical dialogue where both men reveal their impressions, fears and dreams through indirect statements. “People you can trick, that’s easy,” the teenager tells the inventor. “But how do you trick a machine?”
Finn (played by Steven Louis Kane) has shrapnel embedded in his skull, though he is still a mathematical prodigy.
Finn’s convinced that the calculator will be complete if and when the pair can accomplish subtraction by addition. Watching the story unfold, I found myself trying to attempt some of the number problems in the dialogue. When Finn becomes more and more unstable, Curt asks him to calculate 22 divided by seven. The answer will break your heart.
Lin modestly describes the five scenes of his two-act play as “a very traditional structure.”
He’s kept the design simple (though I was quite impressed that the characters could dig and hide things in the sand of the stage floor, a wonderful touch) and limited the lighting cues. “The theatrical experience is something we haven’t really experienced in a long time,” he told me toward the end of our interview. “We wanted everything to funnel into what the characters say to each other, and it’s a very refreshing throwback for people.”
Intelligence Slave runs through June 20.