Aug 6, 2008 at 12:00 am

In popular culture, perhaps no historical event gets as uniform a treatment as the Holocaust. From big-budget film to off-Broadway play, concentration camp stories carefully trace the grim outlines of Nazi brutality: the imprisoning, enslaving and butchering of mostly hapless prisoners.

In these narratives, the bad guys click their heels and the good guys wear stripes. So when a play starts blurring the lines with prisoners who turn on, kill and eat each other, edgy theater fans sit up and take notice. And the Abreact's ambitious production of The Cannibals, a play written by George Tabori in the mid-1960s, gives metro Detroiters the opportunity to see it at the Zeitgeist Performance Space.

The play opens with Auschwitz survivors, middle-aged men in suits, having what seems like an idle chat about food. But they're soon shrouded in darkness, as light hits bunks filled with prisoners off to the side, as a prisoner sneaks off to eat a crust of bread. For sneaking food, he is attacked and accidentally killed. Barely pausing to grieve, the starved inmates cook up a plan to turn him into a stew.

The lone dissenter is known simply as "Uncle" (Dax Anderson), who pesters them with his appeals to civilization even as they prepare their friend for dinner. In a place where people argue over crumbs, his recitations from the Torah can't compete with the prospect of food.

And so several hours of conflict play out, with the prisoners rapt with the cooking process, occasionally shouting down the scolding Uncle. One character asks of Uncle's morality, "Where do you draw the line? Meat is meat." When morality finally breaks down, only one thing can bring people to the table.

The lively script keeps moving along. Though you'd hardly guess it, it's sometimes a funny little play, littered with small jokes ("You'll join the meal!") and moments of black comedy — though the audience may be too sobered by the setting to laugh at them much.

The cast includes a number of talented local actors. In addition to survivors Heltai (Sean Paraventi) and Hirschler (Rob Rose), the prison cast includes such treats as Josh Campos, Keith Allan Kalinowski, Carolyn Hayes and Katie Galazka. There's a decided, sometimes loosey-goosey, physicality to this production, and dynamic physical actors like Carolyn Hayes and Josh Campos can make it seem like pure performance for a moment. And front and center is Dax Anderson as Uncle, giving the performance his usual Crispin Glover-like intensity. Astonishingly, he even works himself up to the point of tears in this show, but his performance is a bit too relentless, and would benefit from some easier, gentle notes to lend menace to his fervor.

Unlike the space's spare and successful production of American Buffalo last year, this play can feel like an ambitious tangle of theatrical conceits, some more successful than others. With a rather large cast for a small theater, the direction bends toward ensemble acting, with people all reacting and moving together on stage. Some experimental technique involves players miming their props, and the cast makes the noises of the sizzling of meat or the boiling of water. The story pauses mid-scene, with actors, suddenly in a high-key light, narrating their character's life to the audience. It's convoluted further with open-casting that has women playing men and leaves youthful "Uncle" wearing a joke-shop beard. Amid all the experimentation, the director has missed some choices, including blocking that has actors sitting upstage on the floor, hard to see for all but those seated in front, or the decision to give the survivors European accents, which come off unevenly.

Despite these complications, the production gives us the opportunity to see an unusual play exploring the horrifying decisions people must make under desperate circumstances. As the play makes clear, martyrs don't always live like saints until the very end. And, instead of reiterating the common theme of "never again," the play ambiguously casts the survivors as people determined to "never be hungry again." As several of the cast and production team, descended from Holocaust survivors, make clear in the play's notes, accepting and understanding those realities perhaps does more to help us grasp the enormity of what mass murder does to us.

Shows at 8 p.m. Aug. 8-9 and 15-16, at the Zeitgeist Performance Venue, 2661 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-965-9192; $10.

Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]