It’s difficult enough to suspend disbelief when we are trying to place our faith in what is unfolding on stage. What happens when a playwright willfully inserts a character who seems to pose an obstacle to those efforts?
In “The Revisionist” — SuzAnne Barabas’s one-act, playing Saturday evening, Sept. 22, as part of NJ Repertory Theater’s Festival of the Arts in Long Branch — one of its two characters is someone (something, rather) that is typically invisible to spectators: Stage Directions. He (or she, or it) starts off simply describing what is taking place — as good stage directions do — and even insists that the audience ignore him/her/it. Impossible, of course; the presence of Stage Directions only reinforces that what the audience is viewing is artifice.
But as the other character, the Revisionist of the title, delivers his lines, Stage Directions, despite efforts to the contrary, casts off its strict disinterested-observer status. The result: The audience increasingly relates to the emotions Stage Directions cannot resist expressing, and their dramatic faith grows stronger.
The choice of this non-traditional device, said Barabas, NJ Rep’s artistic director, was no mere theatrical ploy, but a pointed tactic designed to serve her ultimate intention.
Because the title character — an “attractive young man…with a pleasant manner,” says Stage Directions, “just the kind of young man you would like your daughter to bring home to meet the family” — turns out to be not quite what he first appears to be.
The Revisionist starts off reminiscing about fairy tales told to him by his mother. But when his monologue takes a slow turn — evoking “War of the Worlds” and “Jack the Giant Killer,” reference to hoaxes and to “invented” claims of six million dead Jews — Stage Directions finally cannot resist throwing off impartiality, becoming a witness, and issuing warnings about monsters that don’t look like monsters.
With this transformation, said Barabas, Stage Directions becomes for the audience an “everyman” who dramatically demonstrates how easy it is for ordinary people to be conned, and how they might, perhaps, “even join in with real-life revisionists, succumbing to versions of ‘truths’ that are more than lies, but rather evil twistings of history.”
The genesis of her one-act, said Barabas, was as part of “Find Me A Voice”— a full play, written with her husband, Gabor, NJ Rep’s executive producer — which was produced originally in 1999-2000. That work centered around a Jewish writer “who is haunted by relatives who have died, people he had known who were victims of the Nazis, and who only writes only about the Shoah.” Containing some 10 poems, “Find Me A Voice” was based on true stories and was written, Barabas said, “for those who cannot speak.”
That larger work was dedicated in part to members of Gabor’s family who were killed by the Nazis. Gabor was born in Hungary after the war; his mother, who lost most of her family, was in Auschwitz; his father was interned in labor camps.
It was the current political atmosphere, SuzAnne Barabas said, that moved her to “pull out ‘The Revisionist’” and make it part of the festival.
“With a resurgence of anti-Semitism, especially in Europe, and the emergence of so many Holocaust deniers,” she said, she regards “The Revisionist” as not just “another Holocaust play,” but as a wake-up call to draw attention to “something I can see happening now.”
Holocaust deniers “are cunning,” she said. In staging “The Revisionist,” she was “thinking of young people who don’t have the background to understand what the Shoah was and are most vulnerable; you can see how they could be tricked into regarding facts as ‘fake news.’”
It is through this spotlighting of fakery and the use of “bait and switch” — reaffirming the huckster’s adage that there’s “a sucker born every minute” — and a touch of background calliope music that “The Revisionist” fits into the festival theme, “When the Circus Comes to Town,” albeit with an ominous tone.
“With terrible acts dominating the news and the airwaves, life can be scary,” said Barabas. Seeking the truth is “not political; people need to be well-informed so they can make the right choices to prevent atrocities from happening again.”