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January 29, 2014 6:31 pm

When Yellow Were the Stars on Earth (REVIEW)

avatar by Joshua Levitt

'When Yellow Were the Stars on Earth' playbill. Photo: Kathleen Flynn.

'When Yellow Were the Stars on Earth' playbill. Photo: Kathleen Flynn.

In an electrifying theatrical performance, ‘When Yellow Were the Stars on Earth‘ tells the interlocking stories of a band of Jewish resistance fighters led by a woman in 1943 Berlin, the Nazi SS Captain hunting them down, and his lover, a feisty cabaret singer who lives upstairs from their hideout and is forced to choose sides.

The play, written and directed by Italian playwright Franco Moschetti, is framed by the testimonies of Anne and Eva, the now-grown daughters of Miriam, the soulful Jewish resistance fighter, and Klara, the fiery redheaded singer, who present the drama as if they’d pieced it together from historical documents they discovered linking their mothers during the war.

The action is presented with cinematic flair, with short scenes, cliff hangers and tension that builds as it reaches a climax, with the Nazis closing in on the resistance fighters, who have documents that could save hundreds of Jews.

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What makes this story different from other dramatizations about the Holocaust is that, only in New York City, it seems, could an Italian, descendant of a captain in Mussolini’s fascist army, write and direct an emotionally riveting play that ties together these three different narratives. Moschetti shows the humanity not only in the band of Jewish resistance fighters, a story often retold, but also the pressure faced by the Nazi commanders, as the war turned against them, and, most importantly, profiles the Germans who stood up as righteous gentiles after recognizing the enormity of the Nazi war machine that was slaughtering the Jewish people en masse.

Fittingly, in one of its most gut-wrenching scenes, Moschetti had to step in as the understudy to play the part of Wolfgang, the cabaret singer’s brother, a German soldier, who returns home wounded, physically and psychologically, from the Russian front where he admits to his sister that he lost his humanity and felt the death of his soul when forced by his commanding officers to lead the Jews from a village to dig one of the infamous Nazi trenches before lining up for their own deaths by firing squad. The pathos is even deeper – and it’s worth revealing the scene because it is just so powerful – as Wolfgang tells of his childhood friend in the same battalion who cocks his rifle to kill the Jewish children on the trench in front of him, but refuses the order, and he, himself, is shot dead in the temple by his own commander.

This is the second run of ‘When Yellow Were the Stars on Earth,’ which is now entering its final weekend, with the company having made arrangements to start late enough on Saturday night to accommodate Shabbat-observant Jews who wanted to see the show, plus adding a Sunday matinée, which will be the final show. The original run, in 2011, was only an hour and twenty minutes, and the current production is longer, closer to two hours.

In a cast interview with The Algemeiner, Moschetti said the prologue by the daughters of Miriam and Klara was added, as well as another pivotal scene – also worth revealing – that shows the Jewish resistance fighters, played very believably by non-Jews Marcello Padilla, Matt McAllister, and John Larkin, debating the philosophical argument behind their actions. And not to give the impression that the play is another drawn-out philosophical dialectic, Moschetti is successful in also showing the action involved with actually being a resistance fighter, featuring them smuggling guns to prepare for their battle and a real Hollywood-style confrontation that convinced the playwright to begin work on a screenplay adaptation of the story.

The real pathos in the play comes from the scenes where Jewish actress Michele Farbman, who plays Miriam, the leader of the resistance, interacts with her real-life friend, German actress Gudrun Buhler, who plays Klara, the cabaret singer. From the start, Klara’s questioning of Gunter, her SS Captain lover, about rumors she’s heard of Jews being killed for being Jewish, sets the scene for her to play her role as the righteous gentile. But in speaking with Buhler after the performance about her own feelings as the real-life German in the play, it seems, as much as Jews are taught to never forget, many Germans of this third generation since the Holocaust have been taught the same. In her view, the only rationale for law-abiding German people to have gone along with the final solution during the war is summed up in only one word, “madness.”

Of the other featured players, Curtis Nielsen, a Shakespearean actor who plays the SS Captain, said he spent a solid three months researching the role, by reading books and watching documentaries from the era to understand the mind of the Nazi officer and get the details of their bearing, all the more chilling for a Jew in the audience to see up close. (Knowingly, Nielsen admits he is getting good at it, with three of his last four roles portraying harsh military officers.) Kazy Tauginas, who plays, Fritz, Gunter’s lieutenant and rival, has the Nazi heel-toe march down pat, and shows the Nazi training, never looking his commanding officer in the eye.

Another interesting casting twist is Rhea Ross, Michele Farbman’s real-life mother, who was asked to play “her daughter’s daughter” in the prologue, opposite Wanda O’Connell, a New York theater and film veteran, who plays Eva, Klara’s daughter, removed from the action in Berlin by being sent to boarding school in the forest, where she fantastically transports the audience to in her opening scene.

Theatergoers were overjoyed with the performance after Sunday’s matinée at the Cabrini Repertory Theater, with its simple auditorium-style and stark set design that focuses the eye’s attention on the actors’ performance.

Elizabeth Bettina, author of the book ‘It Happened in Italy,’ about the righteous Italian gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews living in their midst – by some estimates 80 per cent – was one of the many very knowledgeable members of the audience.

In her book, Walter Wolff, a German-Jew from Frankfurt who was sent to the Dachau concentration camp and ultimately sought refuge in Italy, summed up the plot of this play, when, many years ago, he told her, “There were some good Germans in a bad situation.”

A Roman Catholic who grew up in Jericho, New York, where her many Jewish friends considered her “Jewish by association,” Bettina told The Algemeiner, “The Talmud says if you save a life, you save the world. Since writing the book, what has amazed me most was meeting the children and the grandchildren of the Jews who survived in Italy.” Bettina said she is working on a documentary, ‘Don’t Talk About It: Italy’s Secret Heroes,’ and recently flew over to meet and film some of the rescuers, many of whom have been honored at Yad Vashem.

Bettina, said, “There’s a lesson here about the ‘goodness’ of people who stand up to save even one life – that one life can beget so many more – and I think ‘When Yellow Were the Stars on Earth’ tells that story very powerfully.”

When Yellow Were the Stars on Earth‘ is performed at the Cabrini Repertory Theater, at 701 Ft. Washington Ave at 190th Street, New York City. The show’s final performances are Friday and Saturday night, January 31 and February 1, at 8:30 PM, and Sunday, February 2, at 2:30 PM.

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