Friday, November 16, 2018

"Everything Is Illuminated"

Everything Is Illuminated
Adapted by Simon Block, Based on the Novel by Jonathan Safran Foer

Julian López Morillas, Adam Burch & Jeremy Kahn
“No one arrives in this world from nowhere.”  The driving desire to know his own origins sends a young, aspiring writer in the late 1990s to the Ukraine in search of a woman in a picture identified as Augustine whom he believes saved his deceased grandfather as a boy from the Nazis during the Holocaust.  He has no more information except that his grandfather’s family lived in a shtetl called Trachimbrod – a town of mostly Jews literally wiped off the map by the Nazis. 

Based on a novel inspired by a similar but unsuccessful quest made by its author, Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated is a play with the same name as the novel and as a subsequent, 2005 movie.  The adapted play by Simon Block is now in its West Coast premiere at Aurora Theatre Company in a production both incredibly funny and heartbreakingly sad as well as fantastically unreal and starkly harsh in reality as the search for a family’s history becomes a mixture of created fiction and discovered fact.

After a grueling, twenty-six hour train ride, the twenty-something Jonathan arrives in the Ukrainian region where he believes his grandfather once lived.  He is met by his two guides who “take curious Jews where they want to go” as they search for information about families that are no more.  His guides are an animated, hyper-friendly contemporary-to-him named Alex -- whose command of English is hilariously barely past meager -- and  his sour-faced, gruff Grandfather, who speaks no English and poses as blind and deaf when he does not want to be disturbed by others.

Jeremy Kahn
Jeremy Kahn is the overly loud, rather dramatic, and habitually intense Jonathan  -- sometimes on the border of being too much so in Mr. Kahn’s quite zealous performance.  Jonathan has come to the Ukraine believing his online-selected guides are experts in the Jewish history of the area and will know exactly where to take him.  His crusade to know his origins have led him even to begin imagining in a journal the arrival of his great-great-great-great grandmother on the shores of a nearby river – a Moses-in-the-bulrushes-like story he is writing and that comes to life in his head and on our stage even as he is trying to find the mysterious Augustine.  His almost frenetic impatience and anxiety grow when he cannot understand the conversations – often heated with much shouting – between his two guides.  His nervousness of his guides’ credibility only increases when Alex says to him, “It doesn’t say that in our history books,” when Jonathan mentions how much the Ukrainians did not like Jews back during the time of the war.

Jeremy Kahn & Adam Burch
Adam Burch is extraordinarily exceptional in the role of Alex.  From our first glimpse of him as he sits in a café wearing shiny, work-out garb and bouncing his shoulders to the background music’s beat as if in a disco, his Alex commands the stage and much of the story.  He is often our narrator, always relating with a sparkle his amusement, sense of wonder, and sincere like for this Jonathan (whom he mispronounces with pride “Jonfen”) from the faraway States.  He brushes off as no big deal Jonathan’s concern about his black eye that his drunken father gave him or the repeated slaps across the face he receives from the old Grandfather who clearly does not want to be on this adventure.  But his Alex knows the importance to the family of earning the trust and the money of this wandering Jew from America and of the potential business he may bring or may destroy, depending on how successful they are in helping him.

Julian López-Morillas is the barking grandfather whose constantly growled references to “the fucking Jew” smacks of deep-seeded anti-Semitism. The Grandfather protests constantly about the American who does not eat meat (not even liver), who wants them to find a town no one claims to remember ever existing, and who is even hates his treasured dog, Sammy Davis, Jr. Jr. (The dog, by the way, provides us with bone-tickling scenes of a panicking Jonathan being licked by her invisible, in-heat self.) 

We begin to have hints that there is more to this elderly curmudgeon than his rough surface when we see something happen in the Grandfather’s eyes as he first sees Jonathan’s picture of Augustine and as he actually listens to why Jonathan wants to know about the history of a grandfather who lost the rest of his Ukrainian family.  For a few moments, there is a softening that suggests more empathy and understanding than his constant complaints and arguments would otherwise suggest.  And for all his acerbic remarks and dour persona, he defends himself to his grandson, “I am not a bad person; I am a good person who was born in a bad time.”

Adam Birch & Marissa Keltie
Marissa Keltie plays a variety of Ukrainian characters of the countryside, from a barmaid with no time for Alex’s flirting to a peasant in the field with threatening shovel, with no time for his inquisitions about a town called Trachimbrod.  The latter’s reaction to that town’s name is a mirror of each person in the play who first hears the name: A moment’s stunned silence and look of dread, followed by a quick denial of ever hearing of the place.

Adam Burch, Jeremy Kahn & Julian López Morillas
Tom Ross directs a first half of this two-hour, thirty-minute play often with light-hearted, comical touches that can border on cartoonish.  An all-day car ride through the countryside takes on laugh-out-loud dimensions when the auto -- consisting of two wooded chairs and a bench, all on rollers -- turns, twirls, and twists in all directions and combinations of position as the journey goes nowhere in finding the illusive Trachimbrod.  Kate Boyd’s scenic design makes big use of over-sized, yellow flowers from the Ukrainian countryside with lighting by Kurt Landisman adding patterned shadows of rotating suns and dappled canopies of trees.  Matt Stines creates the sounds of an old dog and older car, an idyllic countryside, a train-station café, and bone-shattering thunderstorms – all resulting in the story becoming ever the more vivid on a mostly bare stage where only suggestions of scenes are made.

In the second half, Jonathan’s quest becomes intermingled with an unexpected exploration by Alex of his own history.  Alex clearly knows little of his own past, wondering at one point to his Grandfather, “What did my great-grandparents do during the war?  ... Who did they save?”  The closer Jonathan comes to finding some of his own answers, the more questions begin to arise in Alex’s mind about his own heritage. 

Lura Dolas & Adam Burch
A chance meeting in the countryside with a meek, high-voiced, sweetly pleasant woman with long, white hair becomes a major discovery for Jonathan, the Grandfather, and ultimately Alex.  Her house that is a magical wall of shelved memories -- created through the masterful properties design of Eric Johnson -- becomes the foundation for multiple surprises.  As the old woman, Lura Dolas at one point provides one of the evening’s most spell-bounding, heart-wrenching sequences -- relating in carefully chosen, excruciatingly painful words a history that further unlocks memories and secrets of the Grandfather.  Subsequently, Mr. Lopez-Morillas also holds the audience in silent, stunned attention as the Grandfather’s heretofore-shuttered memories begin to pour forth.

The awarenesses that come to light in Everything Is Illuminated raise many questions as well as incite important truths.  Our histories are deep and are always with us whether we know the details or not – to the point we each probably sometimes do as Jonathan does in his journal and imagine in our minds from where our unknown histories long ago originated.  We are also reminded that our futures go beyond us and live on in legacies of the unborn, as is hinted by the Grandfather who emphatically says more than once, “A father is always responsible for his son.”  But what do we do when remembrance leads to incredible pain and guilt or when discovery ushers in scenes difficult to forgive even from those we love the most?  Are there times it is just better to imagine where we came from rather than actually find out?

The Aurora Theatre Company production of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated (as adapted by Simon Block) lures us in with scenes silly yet intriguing, takes us on a journey where sunny skies darken as shadows grow, and lands us in discoveries difficult to accept but important to comprehend.  The play’s mixture of a writer’s real-time experience and his created fantasy results in an evening that cannot help but leave us with new regrets of never-conceived generations due to entire families lost as well as renewed appreciation of the generations saved and those who saved them.

Rating: 5 E

Everything Is Illuminated continues through December 9, 2018 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 415-843-4822.

Photo by David Allen

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