Why would a theater company in deep financial trouble mount a revival of a play that shut down on Broadway after only two weeks, and has had only one revival since 1974? That’s what premiered last night, “Dreyfus in Rehearsal,” by Arizona Jewish Theatre at Phoenix College’s John Paul Theater.
Maybe because Janet Arnold, who founded the company 24 years ago, believes it has something to say to Phoenix audiences circa 2012 – she’s literally betting her company’s life on it.
So what’s the big deal? “Deal, shmeal” you might say.
Dreyfus was a fully assimilated Jewish guy born in a part of France that was taken over by Germany in the 1870’s. So his family moved to Paris, he joined the French Army and rose to the rank of Captain by 1894 – when he was set up on treason charges of spying for Germany, stripped of his rank and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island. His trial set off a firestorm of anti-Semitism in France, and became a cause célèbre of the day. Ten years later he was exonerated, released from prison, and allowed his former rank back. He then served with distinction in WW I and retired as a patriotic French Colonel.
Anything sounding familiar yet?
The play is set in a Jewish Ghetto in Poland eight years before Hitler invaded, where a bunch of amateur actors are trying to understand why they need to deal with this strange episode in French history. They feel that any nice Jewish boy would never be delusional enough to think he’d be accepted by Polish society, never think of joining the army, never cry out that he loves Poland and loves the Polish Army as he was led off to prison. He would never make waves, just try and remain invisible in his ghetto, hoping to escape any notice by the Poles.
Why does Janet think this story is important enough to risk her company’s future to produce here in Arizona at this moment in history?
Their rehearsal is broken up by a gang of anti-Semitic thugs. Most of the cast escapes to safe places like Berlin and Warsaw. The others go back to doing Yiddish shtick, asking one question of the audience before fading into the dark.
The cast does a somewhat creditable job of it. The theater is cozy, the ushers caring and friendly, the Fairytale Brownies are good at intermission. Everything is two dollars. Easy to remember.
Go. Think about why this theater company is doing this. It will be worth it.