nytheatre.com review by Lauren Marks
December 14, 2005
Golgotha, a new play by Shmuel Refael, is currently at La MaMa in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Holocaust. It is a monodrama in which the main character, Alberto Salavado, reflects on his experiences as a Sephardic Jew (raised in Spain, and Ladino-speaking) during the Holocaust. Now living in Israel, he is spurred to consider his life and situation more closely as he prepares to be part of a torch-lighting ceremony at Yad-Vashem on Holocaust Memorial Day.
I am absolutely certain that there are those who benefit from this play in a way that I cannot ever comprehend, including Holocaust survivors, survivor's families, and members of the Sephardic community; many such people seemed to be in the audience the night that I was there. I respect the ongoing mission of works of art helping to ease the pain by sharing the experience, and passing on information with the hopes that the events will not be repeated.
But I must also say that I think it is dangerous when works about the Holocaust feel overly familiar or repetitive, because the essence of the message then slowly degrades. If a play, or any piece of art, about atrocity seems easy to deal with, then the opposite mission of the piece is accomplished. At the moment when horror no longer horrifies, the danger of disassociation becomes readily apparent. Unfortunately, my experience of Golgotha was more in this vein, and I found myself neither fully involved nor profoundly moved by this piece.
Victor Attar provides a strong portrayal of Salavado, especially in the moments when the character becomes most emotional. But Refael's text is somewhat problematic as a vehicle for him: it seems too straightforward, so that there are no surprises or revelations. We know, from the beginning of the play, almost all there is to know. We know that Salavado was made to be a crematorium operator by the Nazi officers, and to push other Jews into the gas chambers and furnaces. Gruesome as this information is, when the play finally gets around to going further in depth about this subject, the effect is surprisingly unemotional because we know most of it already.
Neither does the play really accomplish the experience of making the Sephardim, as forgotten victims of the Holocaust, come to life. There is one really striking moment when Salavado arrives in the concentration camp and is greeted by a Polish Jew who, in disbelief, asks, “What, do they also bring Sephardic Jews to the ovens?” (To which he responds: “No—we Sephardim came here as volunteers.”) But the play doesn’t really provide much more information as to what made their experience unique. The themes, the words, and the experiences related, all seem intensely reminiscent of other Holocaust literature.
It is also unclear, throughout the play, who exactly Salavado is talking to. He is usually directing his comments at the audience, but since it is established that he is alone in his house, it is a bit off-putting having him talk as if there were someone else there.
Obviously, Salavado carries with him a tremendous amount of guilt. He blames the Devil for pursuing him relentlessly. When his doctor suggests he take better care of his heart, Salavado answers, “I don’t have to worry about my heart, I have to worry about the Devil who keeps me alive as punishment.” But I found his guilt almost too straightforward. He looks at the experience lighting the torch Yad-Vashem with reverence, and he laments that he doesn’t think that he is worthy. I never felt any doubt as to his worth, though; he is so clearly a victim, deserving of any moment of respite he can get. Doug Wright's I am my own wife explores deeply the complicated web of guilt, especially as it relates to a struggle for survival in a time of daily horror. But Golgotha presents Salavado as so clearly victimized, and so unquestionably good at heart, that the tension of the script and the story is quickly dissipated.
The music, though lovely and apparently authentic to the Sephardic community, is more disruptive than enriching. It distracts from, rather than supports, Attar’s onstage experience. The video art is at first thrilling, but gradually becomes repetitive and is by no means used to its full potential.
There is a tremendous body of artistic work devoted to, or relating to, the Holocaust, especially when compared to other great historical atrocities such as the recent Rwandan genocide. This raises the bar to an extremely high artistic level for new works about the Holocaust, because they must add something to the material that hasn’t already been conveyed. Golgotha works nobly and with good intentions, but falls short of bringing an unheard artistic insight.