REMEMBER THIS at ChicagoShakes
Updated: Nov 8, 2021
Theatre Review by Angela Allyn
And so we begin to return to the magic and community of live theatre. Chicago Shakespeare began its season with a raucous Beatle’s music infused gathering in its flagship space, but for the ever flexible Yard space across the hall, they chose to begin with a tour de force one man show that brings us back to the Holocaust. Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski is a truly remarkable story of the power of a single person, and is a lesson for all of us about perseverance in the face of history and fate.
This is a hard work to witness at times , and not for the faint of heart. The show consists of Karski telling his life story as he serves the Polish Army, is defeated in the brief conflict with Nazy Germany, has several near misses with certain death and then becomes a courier for the Polish Underground as the Nazi’s take over Europe. He walked through the Warsaw Ghetto and a Nazi extermination camp and reported what he saw to British authorities and directly to then President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He states clearly that after the war, many would say they did not know, but Karski contends that they were told, they just did not believe it. He notes that humans have “an infinite capacity to ignore things that are not convenient.”Karski’s mission begs the question: What is Truth? And it is a message we are contemplating all too much now, 21 years after his passing.
David Strathairn has found a character to bring to life that is deep and meaningful , and that allows this consummate artist to put everything he has and is on the stage. He looks and sounds the part, as we are able to see a brief clip of Jan Karski himself in Claude Lanzmann’s landmark documentary Shoah. Through lighting (designed by Zach Blane) and incredibly precise and visceral movement choreographed by Emma Jaster, we are able to re-live Karski’s experiences. At the beginning of the play,and again at the end, in an eerie connection to our own time and the insidious and ever present cyclical rise of authoritarianism, Strathairn asks: What can I do? The play notes that “our world is in peril… so many are denied justice… we see this” and what can we do? Karski’s wisdom is that “each individual has an infinite capacity to do good… or evil” and that is our lesson and our call to action. We see through this play, how hard it can be to bear witness--- so traumatizing that once he immigrated to the U.S. and became a professor at Georgetown, Karski did not recount his experiences for decades. He considered himself a failure because he could not prevent the Holocaust, but he kept trying to improve the world by teaching in Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. Many of his companions, from his brother to his wife to the Jewish envoy to the Polish Government in Exile,Szmul Zygielbojm, committed suicide because the world as it was became to painful to endure.
This is an important story to see. It is a challenging and moving work of theatre and may best be experienced in community with other humans, though Derek Goldman, the compassionate director and co-author noted that a happy accident of COVID is the making of a film version of the show. If you have not been in a theatre, this is a beautiful and resonant way to return, but don’t forget your vaccination card!
Remember This: : The Lesson of Jan Karski is only running is only running at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s Yard on Navy Pier until November 14th.For tickets and information go to www.ChicagoShakes.com or call 312-596-5600.