On a recent weekend night in Detroit, the stairs leading down to the cavernous Studio Theatre on Wayne State University's campus might've appeared cinematically staged. Dank and dark, a chilly wind caressed theatergoers' necks the whole way down, with soggy moss patches bubbling from the cracked concrete underfoot. After passing through a black iron gate, past a couple muddy puddles, under a droning, mute-yellow bulb, finally you'd find the door. Your mood might shift to match the scene if you'd let it — especially if you arrived alone and almost late. Dramatic indeed. Nature can be that way.
On this night, however, nature's magnitude was trumped by a production of the newly choreographed poetic play Night Scales: A fable for Klara K. It's a mesmeric production in which Holocaust despondence — an exhausted literary subject if there was one — gets an inventive and adeptly poetic treatment for the stage. History is described as "a strange and foreign moment of the handmade watch. The gears made from corpses." Our heroine describes her repressed memory as "hoarded pain." Going on, she says, "I hollow my stomach in the early hour ... wanting it to hurt ... I eat my bruises and drink my hurt in a long swallow."
Night Scales is a story told by two minds at once: Klara K as filtered through the Writer. As the latter tries to "get the story right" from Klara, who says such an attempt "is a joke," the retelling becomes a sorrowful and confusing excursion to places Klara knows too well but spent decades trying to forget. Klara's burden bleeds from her mouth to Writer's fingers. The grief, though it varies in degrees, becomes shared. Then, in just a little more than 90 minutes, it becomes yours too.
The stage lights fade in, illuminating a rickety wooden desk set in front of a forest of dead trees. At the desk the Writer sits behind an antique typewriter. Below the table, a small graveyard of other typewriters, or skeletons of them, are either rising from the earth or falling into it. Maybe both at the same time. That's how Night Scales works: chronology is cut to pieces, geographic comings and goings are blurred with emotional ones, and we're constantly pulled into various corners of Klara's head, only to be shoved into other action by pangs of memory. The "fog of misremembering," as Klara calls it, falls heavy. To better taste the woe, Klara later suggests, we could just as well "stuff an onion into our mouths."
The burden of retelling her horrific wartime experience — witnessing genocide, undergoing an ominous religious conversion, fleeing from her native land and family for the sake of survival — is a burden that Klara is ready to bear. For her as much as for the Writer, it's a sore, heady and nonlinear experience. It gets frustrating. For the audience, it's equally trying, yet theatrically captivating, like an irksomely vivid dream you don't enjoy but don't want to wake from either.
Much could be said for the production of Night Scales — Wayne State University's theatrical department should be proud. As anyone in the audience could tell you (experienced in the theater or not) this was obviously not an easy production, mainly due to the script's dense poeticism and weight of subject. But Aku Kadago's direction and choreography proved engaging, with many ensemble scenes playing out just beautifully. The costumes, sets and projections were simple and authentic. The music, from the eerie wail of a singing saw to the eastern European whirr of an accordion and Kubrickian off-key melodica drone were awesome and understated, so hats off to musical director Madison McEvilly. And while actors Mackenzie Conn, Robbie Dwight, Caitlin Morrison, Joe Hamid and Alyssa Scalvini were all notable this night (names to watch indeed), Alexander J. Schott and Samantha Moltmaker, as Klara, both delivered extraordinary performances.
The shining star of Night Scales, though, is author Chris Tysh. It was Tysh's own mother who survived the Holocaust by passing for Catholic and being exiled to Paris, where her daughter was raised. The author's poetic meditation not only confronts survival in a visceral sense, but also the emotional implications of having to survive, weighing its value and its consequences in a manner that hasn't been reached since Elie Wiesel's harrowing recollection.
Through a series of jarring poetic scenes, Tysh comments on the weight that gets passed on to the family who made such radical sacrifices, showing us that though scars fade, they span generations and never really disappear. Before the house lights come down and all is left dark, Klara's ties her story to the Writer, to Tysh, to anyone who can relate, speaking her last line while holding her stomach: "death skipped us." Us.
See Night Scales: A fable for Klara April 29 thru May 1 at the Studio Theatre; 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-577-2972; hilberry.com.Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]