Review: ‘Here There Are Blueberries’ shows banality of evil

Here There Are Blueberries, a play conceived and directed by Moisés Kaufman, tells the true story of a photo album sent to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2007.

The sender, a retired US Army intelligence officer, found the album shortly after the war while living in Frankfurt, Germany. Towards the end of his life he believed that collecting photos from the Auschwitz concentration camp would be of historical interest. He was right, although it took some impressive detective work to unveil the value of what had been gathering dust in his archives for more than 60 years.

The play, which has its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse in a co-production with the Tectonic Theater Project, meditates on the many aspects of this disturbingly resonant story. Kaufman, Tectonic’s artistic director, and Amanda Gronich, a founding member of the company, co-wrote the screenplay, which stays true to fact but takes artistic liberties in favor of dramatic clarity, economy and power.

The authors worked closely together on The Laramie Project, the seminal non-fiction drama about the 1998 murder of University of Wyoming gay student Matthew Shepard. In Here There Are Blueberries, they embrace the nature of murderous complicity with courage and compassion to an unfathomable extent.

The album’s story is told from the perspective of the researchers, who piece together information about the characters in the photos. The images, which are an integral part of the piece, garnered so much attention when news of their discovery broke that the museum’s website crashed.

Rebecca Erbelding (Elizabeth Stahlmann), the museum’s archivist, is initially skeptical about the claim that the photos are from Auschwitz when she is first contacted by the donor. But when the album arrives, a photo of Josef Mengele, one of the most depraved doctors in the Third Reich, catches her eye.

Before that, she explains, there was no photographic evidence of Mengele at Auschwitz. Sensing the importance of what was sent to her, she consults with an older colleague.

A closer look at the photos of Judy Cohen (Rosina Reynolds), the head of the museum’s photographic collection, reveals a central figure in maintaining the Nazi regime, Rudolf Höss. As Judy explains, “He built Auschwitz and ran it for years. He is responsible for everything we call camps: the barracks, the watchtowers, the electric fences, the extermination infrastructure… the whole organization.”

The album contains 116 photos with captions in German. The characters in the photos are not the prisoners but the people who ran the camp. Ordinary Germans who team up at work, attend official celebrations, and enjoy leisure activities. The images provide a haunting illustration of what the philosopher Hannah Arendt famously called “the banality of evil.”

A photographic analysis, supplemented by sophisticated research, leads to the conclusion that the album belonged to Karl Höcker (Scott Barrow). A former bank clerk, he rose to become the chief administrator of Auschwitz – motivated, it seems, not by ideology but by the career opportunism of a petty bureaucrat.

Kaufman and Gronich discuss the many historical and moral questions that the real Rebecca and her colleagues grappled with as they carefully studied the album. The more information they uncover, the more they struggle to make sense of the reality before them.

Of particular interest is a lodge built to provide Nazi officers with a place to vacation with their families to relieve work stress. This rustic pastime stands in stark contrast to the grim reality of the crematoria belching smoke a few miles away.

A photo of women who worked in the camp as telephone, telegraph, and radio operators captures her doing calisthenics with relaxed bonhomie. Another shows her on a bridge in uniform gathered exuberantly while a man plays the accordion.

What did these people know about their workplace? The specialization of labor enabled the workers to deny any knowledge of what was happening in Auschwitz. But as the researchers reveal, their ignorance was a convenient ruse.

A photo of Höcker at the cabin serving blueberries to female employees (the caption provides the piece’s title) is all the more chilling for how serene it looks. The smiling faces suggest a utopia, but these are the managers and guardians of a living hell.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was established to commemorate the victims of the Nazi genocide. The employees are therefore forced to check whether it is right to give space to a collection of photos of perpetrators.

How should history be remembered? Should the names and faces of those who made atrocities possible be erased from records? Finally, the museum staff feel it necessary to draw attention to the depravity of the common man through ideology, self-interest, and a conspiracy of lies. How else to prevent humanity from falling back into darkness?

“Here Be Blueberries” might be a stretch when it comes to following the stories of descendants of Nazis coming to terms with their legacy. The structure of the piece takes on the elasticity of a PowerPoint presentation, dispersing focus.

Although not a literal drama, interviews are the source of the dramatic material. The processing has not yet reached its optimal form. But the strength of the work lies less in the dramatic writing than in the creation of a contemplative theater space.

The son of a Holocaust survivor, Kaufman infuses his venture with a quiet moral purpose that had me crying for much of the production’s 90-minute runtime. An eight-person cast, with each actor taking on multiple roles, majestically balances thought and emotion.

Photographs are projected onto Derek McLane’s set, which moves from the museum’s research office into a realm of fluid memory. The images come to life both aurally and visually, with the performers contributing to the soundscape. But what is strongest is the way the stillness is woven. Kaufman conducts this flawless production with symphonic subtlety.

The sincerity of this collective effort powerfully conveys the seriousness of this treasure trove of artifacts that have almost been lost over time. History knocks once again. Will we open our ears and learn from past mistakes?

“Here are blueberries”

Where: Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theater, La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, UC San Diego, La Jolla
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 8 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays. Saturdays 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. 2pm and 7pm on Sundays. Until August 21st.
tickets: $25 to $62
Contact: (858) 550-1010 or lajollaplayhouse.org
Duration: 1 hour 30 minutes

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-08-09/review-moises-kaufman-here-there-are-blueberries-play Review: ‘Here There Are Blueberries’ shows banality of evil

Sarah Ridley

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