Throughline Theatre’s Judgment at Nuremburg is a particularly sober show. I noted the lines that got laughs. There were three in its entirety.
Despite the somber context (military tribunals of the Nazis in a post-war Germany), it is riveting; a hungry drama that asks you to spite what you know for the sake of an understanding. It is a story that questions the ethics of responsibility, logic and submission to authority, by allowing the audience to relent to innocence until guilt is proven. It is therefore more a play about Law than about anything else.
The play has a stripped down presentation. The theater is stark, but deliberate in its staging. The audience seating forms four wedges, where the byways are a cross and a small center-stage. The actors are only present when they are active in the scene, moving pointedly and directly (as they approach from behind the seating, I’ll let you guess the shape they are entertaining as they cut 90 degree bends at the end of each cross).
This creates an atmosphere of pacing, of people appearing and disappearing. The haziness of this setting, set only by the presence of the actors within their lighting, makes for an almost dream-like absorption, caught in the wake of a traumatized Germany.
The whole audience is basically in the front row. The beads of sweat, the spit from a heavy-handed defensive speech, a whisper, a small tick in the face: these are present and in close proximity. This makes the acting very personal.
It seems it was a choice to allow for an approximation of certain attributes. Some German accents are better than others. Many of the male officials are played by actresses. There is no set. But these are all minor distractions from a scheme that celebrates the passionate truth in this drama: the characters. This is a meat and potatoes set-up for a straightforward dive into character. The entirety of this play is its script and its actors, and many of them truly shine.
Amy Portenlanger’s Oskar Rolfe is easy to hate. Oskar Rolfe is the defense attorney for the Nazi officials on trial at Nuremberg. It should be noted that this is the third trial of Nuremberg. The heavy hitters, like Göring, have been sentenced to death. Oskar Rolfe’s introduction begins jaggedly. Portenlanger can seem, at first, robotic in movement; a bit too didactic and perhaps showing the little bit of a slip that is an actress declaring rote recitation.
Though, this is a misunderstanding.
As the character progresses, you understand the robotic movement is rigidity. The didactic characterization is part of the shrewd, determined calculation of a lawyer; highly logical and practiced, almost like a play within the play. Portenlanger, therefore, sharply realizes the integrity of this character, mechanical in utility as one would have to be in defense of the supposed war criminals. Her movement, her facial tics, her elocution: all entertaining the impact of a stolid German directness, an incisive intensity. The way she claps her hands together is a chop. It makes a blunt sound. It’s not merely the mad energy and gesticulation of a wiry fanatic, but part of a frustrated but ambitious lawyer’s zeal. Effective in its focused, sour bite.
Another break-out is Mike McBurney who has a terrific handle on three very distinct German characters. I appreciated McBurney’s movement within character, which was fluid and showed much nuance. I can appreciate when an actor’s face transforms with emotion, creating an entirely distinct set of intuition and reaction. There was a good deal of restraint, which was snagged by an emotional threshold being breached. Distinct, researched accent. Quite a moving set of performances.
Eric Leslie’s Judge Haywood as well as Everett Lowe’s Ernst Janning were cleverly realized as judges: patient, discerning and critical.
Haywood was the lead arbitrator in the case, and therefore had the heavy burden of understanding the origins of this atrocity. Perhaps it’s the stereotype of a southerner, but Eric Leslie had a visceral contrast in relation to the intensity of this play. His ease towards questions and conclusions was palpable, urged by a curiosity for the inconceivable. Haywood’s thoughts were as clear as his eye contact: the good lawyer, always giving the benefit to reasonable doubt. Chock this up to Leslie thinking within the character. His inner-conflict guides this play, allowing for his plaguing questions: inhuman things happened here. What the hell happened in this country! to find itself outside of the courtroom, marred by the strange contradiction of an orderly, polite German town having been home to the utmost of humiliations and executions.
The true emotional meat though is given to Ernst Janning, the judge who is on trial. This character holds his silence like a weapon. Lowe starts with a heavily reserved, careful performance, which not only uses silence in a provocative and illustrative way, creating an impact from an unveiled and shameful hypocrisy; but also is able to dominate the speed of the play with the echoes of emptiness, allowing for the audience to digest the pain of not knowing, “how?” His performance proves that even for a Nazi, this may be a cruel question. When his breakout moment happens, it is an articulation of what is meant by “guilt” in the courtroom: a desperate, fleeting attempt to reconcile actions with the man. You can see him grapple for an edge whilst falling.
This play attempts to be well-rounded, understanding that its audience will most likely be inherently biased against the Nazis. With that understood, your expected bias goes through a rigamarole of self-doubt, trying hard to come to terms with the role of responsibility when an authoritarian demands complicity. How far back from the executioner does the guilt of responsibility go? As Rolfe puts it, All of Germany is on trial.
It’s hard not to find the subject matter prescient, particularly in 2016’s USA, which defines itself by liberal, idealistic values; a country that has a presidential frontrunner who beckons job creation and citizen’s pride, whilst creating enemies of the perceived “devils on the inside.”
It’s important to know Haywood’s anxiety in understanding that the era that preceded the Nazis was one where non-violence was idealized. The inner menace toils in humanity, because human beings are inclined toward pride, rage and blame. It’s no surprise then that the excitement of Hitler’s pronouncement, lift up your heads. Be proud to be Germans…becomes so scary when paired with There are devils among us: Communists, Liberals, Gypsies, Jews…
This play allows for an empathy with the victimizer, to understand them as victims and as culprits in a crime against humanity. Brilliantly stark, brilliantly played and harrowing.
Special thanks to Throughline Theatre Company for the complimentary press tickets. While you’re here, donate to our indiegogo!
Judgement at Nuremberg runs through Saturday June 18th at the Grey Box Theater. For tickets and more information, click here.