Way to Heaven/ Camino del Cielo

Meymandi Theatre at Murphey School Auditorium at Burning Coal
Through Feb. 8

“Smoke throws its own shadow,” points out the Commandant, played by Francisco Reyes, in Juan Mayorga’s Way to Heaven/ Camino del Cielo, set in a concentration camp disguised as a Jewish “model city” during World War II, where incinerator smoke rises ominously over the school, soccer field and synagogue.

Trains arrive, but new “residents” never doherded into the “infirmary,” except for a small, rotating cast of prisoners ordered to act out scenes from daily life, in a propaganda passion play scripted for outside observers. Like the 500-year-old station clock, which runs (when it runs at all) using scales rather than weights, all appearances in the fake town are deceptive.

The Spanish playwright’s work is running in its American premiere at Burning Coal with a single cast in two versions, Spanish and English, on alternating nights. Steven Roten as the Red Cross Representative, an outside observer (and audience stand-in) who fails to report on the atrocities, is tormented by the fact that even in hindsight, his moral vision isn’t 20/20. Rendering the play’s guilty pleasure, Reyes is deliciously entertaining as the unctuous Commandant, a suave, lethal Colonel Klink in his younger years perhaps, with a full head of hair and without the bumbling. Klink’s camp wasn’t what it seemed, either, but by setting the controversial ’60s satire in an Allied POW camp, Hogan’s Heroes avoided the moral dilemmas Mayorga tackles head-on. While the world looked, yet refused to see, death camps such as the “Way to Heaven” were the Nazis’ deadliest reality show.

The Commandant, a Spinoza-spouting would-be playwright, forces the town’s “mayor,” Gershom Gottfried (played by Paul Paliyenko), to act as his unwilling theater director, securing the people’s willingness to perform through gloved coercion that he euphemistically calls “psychological translation.” Paliyenko’s bottled-up body language credibly conveys the fraught dignity of a man forced to walk the fine line between resistance and collaboration. It may be poetic justice that his character is the only one in Mayorga’s play to carry a name, one he defends against the Commandant’s repeated efforts to Germanize it.

As the cast flips languages from night to night, so do the relationships of native vs. non-native speakers, which makes for an interesting reflection of the play’s cultural power dynamics. For the most part, the cast’s bilingualism is handled ably, and is especially impressive in youth actors Samantha Rahn and Daniel Sowell (Rahn also sings a clarion lullaby in Hebrew). One senses, however, that native Spanish speakers Jesús Martinez and Edna Lee Figueroa have a lot more to give than their relatively minor parts offer.

Roten’s portrait of the Red Cross Representative is impressive in English, but unfortunately, his monologue that opens the playwhich is our only encounter with himwas taped as a voiceover in Spanish. Roten pantomimes to the Spanish voiceover, shuffling frantically through the dead leaves that cover Stephanie Marum’s set, but that had the disadvantage of adding audio distraction to the already distancing voiceover. Roten’s frenetic motion may convey the desperation and futility of moral hindsight, but it does not get at the essence of the world’s complacency when called upon to witness atrocities: our comfort and inertia. Roten brings much more of this complexity to the role when embodying his own lines in English, which is certainly one reason to see both versions. The directorial compromise does beg the question, though, of why for such a tone-setting role, one of the other bilingual actors (perhaps Martinez, a first-timer at Burning Coal but who has had TV experience in Mexico) did not trade parts with Roten for the Spanish version. This would have echoed action in the play itself, where Jews’ roles in the fake village are switched out interchangeably, even if for much sketchier reasons.

Having shown coercion to be an insane form of theater, Mayorga can’t resist a few self-reflexive jabs at theater along the way. The most obvious is the Commandant himself, the epitome of Nazi as cultured bully, who prides himself on his love of Calderón, Corneille and Shakespeare but can’t quote them properly, whose understanding of Aristotelian poetics is as mechanical as the station clock. Reyes, a Madrid native, is gloriously playful yet naturalistic in both languages, and his performances certainly merit side-by-side appreciation.

On the technical side, E.D. Intemann’s lighting design is effective, throwing long silhouettes that amplify the dialogue in much the way memory amplifies and dissolves the play’s ghoststhe blind spot that still afflicts us in the age of the 24-hour news cycle.