Francisco Reyes in Way
to Heaven. Photo by
Burning Coal Theatre.
Juan Mayorga’s Way to Heaven, which is having encore performances at Teatro Circulo through Aug. 23, is a unique and commanding experience. The play, which is directed by Matthew Earnest, is based on the notorious true story of the Thereisienstady concentration camp, where the Nazis constructed a Potemkin — meaning a fake — village to fool international inspectors and tamp down all those rumors that exterminations of Jews were occurring.
In my review for Back Stage, I wrote the following:
More than 75 years after Hitler’s ascension to power in Germany, the portrayal of Nazis on stage and screen is arguably more difficult than ever. It’s simply too easy for actors to play caricature, even if they don’t intend to. The threshold for veracity is high.
This is one reason why Francisco Reyes’ performance as the Commandant in Juan Mayorga’s Way to Heaven (translated by David Johnston) is breathtaking. Mayorga’s inspiration was the events at the concentration camp at Theresienstadt (also called Terezin), where the Nazis created a Potemkin village to dispel extermination rumors and mollify the Red Cross, which visited in 1944.
….Though Reyes is tall as a tree, with a face that echoes the Aryan ideal, his performance is the antithesis of caricature, even when the Commandant, abundant in charm and unctuous to the extreme, quotes Spinoza, Shakespeare, and Pascal as if they were old chums. He’s easy to loathe and impossible not to like-the quintessence of dramatic tension….
And so, when I had the opportunity to do a “5 Questions” with Reyes, it seemed a natural and irresistible opportunity. The play is galvanizing, but Reyes is just a magnitude beyond that. He’s terrifying and cauterizing and charming — and it’s the last quality that is especially effective. He’s a marvelous actor and is pitch-perfect casting.
And now, 5 questions Francisco Reyes has never been asked — and a bonus question.
1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
I can’t remember one but, in general, I do love hearing from the audience after a show. It’s so fascinating to hear about how they felt. An actor’s interpretation of a character is not complete until there’s an audience to interpret it as well. It’s some sort of team effort. I have heard comments about the Commandant I play that I hadn’t necessarily thought of when rehearsing or performing it. One lady waited for me outside the theater after Way To Heaven and said she loved my work because she had wanted to stand up and spit on my face, and call me the worst names during the show. That’s the kind of feedback I’ve been getting recently.
2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Also, after one of the performances of Way To Heaven, someone who had seen the show came to me and said the Holocaust wasn’t something to make jokes about. I took a 10- to 15-second pause and explained to him that we were not making fun of it whatsoever, and that those laughs he had heard during the show came from something called irony. Humor is one of our best tools for survival, but some people are afraid of it.
3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Again, my memory is really bad for this kind of things, I’m sorry. I can’t remember any weird question right now, but I always find it very awkward when some people think actors are good liars. I guess it’s a normal misconception. You hear things like, “Oh, so you are a good liar. Wait, are you lying to me now? Hehehe.” No, actors are not liars, and lying is the last thing you can do onstage or in front of a camera.
4) In Way to Heaven, you play a dastardly, despisable, despotic, demented, disgusting Nazi commandant who is also witty, cultured, charming and practically delightful. How do you guard against taking him home after the show? Indeed, do you like him? Why?
I am a bit of all those adjectives and more, depending on the time of the day, so I guess I have to say that I do take him home with me. I don’t personally like him because of the choices he makes. At the end of the day, and despite his cultured and humanistic nature, he chooses to live and work for the Nazi party. But I absolutely love the way he is written and I feel privileged to be playing a character like him each night, with such depth and, above all, someone so unique and controversial.
5) The other startling virtue of your performance is that you also imbue the commandant with a kind of odd humanity. How much research on the Theresienstadt concentration camp have you done and how did this research affect your creation of the character?
The minute someone with a swastika on his left arm walks on stage, people instantly relate to the first series of adjectives you mentioned earlier. It would not be interesting at all if I immediately proved them right. Quite the opposite, I try to infuse my character with as much humanity as I can, and that kind of unexpected humanity in a Nazi commandant is one of the things that sets Way To Heaven apart from most of the Holocaust-related plays and films — it’s one of the virtues of Juan Mayorga’s exceptional writing. Usually, Nazi officials are completely demonized; they are nothing but barking dogs, emotionless psychos. This is something worth understanding and even necessary: This caricaturized portrayal of Nazis is part of the period of grief we all had to go through in order to understand and overcome the Holocaust. When telling the story of the Holocaust, we have to clearly differentiate the victims from the executioners, to warn the world about the kind of monster that human beings can turn into. However, the figure of the Nazi has been caricaturized to such extreme over time that I don’t think it serves the purpose anymore. They have become killing machines, but it’s their psychology what we have to fear the most: Why did they do it? How could it happen? The Nazi commandant I play is a person, like many of us, with the exception of the war circumstances in which he has to live, and the decisions he eventually makes. It’s time to add another layer to the story. The real evil is not necessarily the one you see coming from miles away, but the one that stays right beside you, the one you don’t even notice. Nazis were not over-the-top evil from day one. They poisoned everything around them in a very subtle way until it was too late to turn back and fix the situation. Their propaganda was the art of true psychological manipulation.
I hadn’t heard about Terezin (Theresienstadt) when I was offered the role, and in the very beginning I even thought it was all some sort of fiction the playwright had imagined. I was really shocked when I learned that the camp actually existed, that it was beautified prior to the visit of the Red Cross, and that the inspectors wrote a favorable report. As for my preparation for the role, if you take Way To Heaven out of context — way out of context — what you see is a theater director trying to put up a play. The horror comes when we realize what the ‘play’ is about, who the ‘actors’ are and what will happen if the ‘show’ doesn’t get good reviews. I have worked with many directors who were quite like the commandant I play in Way To Heaven, and that’s one of my main sources of research for the role. Speaking of directors, I have been very lucky to work with Matthew Earnest, the smartest, most encouraging director I have ever found. He checks his ego at the door and still manages to imprint the entire show with his irresistible personality.
6) Have you ever met a concentration camp survivor-from Theresienstadt or anywhere else? If you haven’t-but if you did-what would you say? What would you ask?
We had a survivor, Paul Weiner, among the audience back in May. He was a little boy when he was in Terezin. I have to confess I was a bit nervous to do the show the night he came. Even though I can’t be prouder of every single aspect of Way To Heaven, and even though the show is not a piece of documentary theater (it simply uses the actual event as a source of inspiration), I couldn’t help but be concerned about his reaction. He loved it, and we even joked about the fact that the real commandant wasn’t as smart as I play him. A few nights ago we had Inge Auerbacher in the audience, another notable survivor and author. She also loved the show, and we had a talkback with her after the Sun., Aug. 9 matinee. Paul and Inge are both glad we are telling their story in such a compelling, cliché-free way.