Author Archive for: ‘CarolBenet’


“Everything is Illuminated” at Aurora Theatre

“Everything is Illuminated” at the Aurora Theatre

Carol Benet

After an award winning novel and later movie version, Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Everything is Illuminated” was adapted for the stage by playwright Simon Block.  It currently runs at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley.

This is the story of a young American man, a New Yorker,  with the same name as the author, who travels to the Ukraine to find the women Augustine (Lura Dolas) who saved his grandfather Yankel from the Nazis in 1943.  In the first of two acts, Jonathan (Jeremy Kahn) meets his guide and translator Alex (Adam Burch) who tries to be hip yet for all the mashed up clichés that he uses (he “tumbles in love” rather than “falls in love”), Alex really does not understand Jonathan’s English.  The accents of the Ukrainians are right on thanks to the dialect coach Nancy Carlin.  This makes for some hilarious dialogue.

Their driver is a Alex’s semi-blind grandfather (Julian López-Morillas) who is nasty and belligerent and calls Jonathan “The Jew”.  Even though Jonathan is deathly afraid of dogs, he is stuffed in the back seat with Sammy Davis Jr. Jr., a dog the audience does not see but with whom Jonathan interacts. They make the trip an imagined uncomfortable broken down car that appears to move thanks to the clever footwork of the three.

Jonathan insists that they look for the small town Trachimbrod but the grandfather refuses to go there despite his being hired to do so. At one point Alex bursts out that he is sick of these myopic Jewish trips with Jews seeking their ravaged past.  The anti-semitism of the two Ukrainians is toxic to the young Jonathan who is trying to write a book about his family’s history.

Alex’s curiosity is peeked and he asks his grandfather, “What did you do during the war?”  The grumpy man does not answer this question.  Among the stories of the dark background of the World War II years, there are  some very funny scenes with Alex who wears a warm-up suit and a big gold chain necklace and swaggers when encountering the indifferent waitresses (all played by Marissa Keltie) that slam down the canned drinks and plates of meat and potatoes that Jonathan, a vegetarian cannot eat.  Some tender as well as fractious scenes (fight director Elena Wright) emerge between the two young men as Alex comes to grasp some history of his country’s involvement in their complicit involvement with the Nazis.  Yet he denies this history as it  did not appear in his school books, ones that never discussed the brutality of the Ukrainians but said instead that they bravely fought the Nazis.

Act II is in Trachimbrod where a very old Augustine still lives yet she has lost the memory of her past.  All that Jonathan has to go on is a faded photograph of her and his grandfather. And Alex’s grandfather, the nasty man, is acting funny.  Why? I won’t tell you but there is a sad story here, one that Alex extracts from him. Jonathan’s imagines other relatives in this town from the time of the 18th century.  This part of the play when the ancient relatives come in does not really work.  Here two stories, Jonathan’s and Alex’s, diverge and they are too much for a stage play like this.  In the novel, the writer had time to go into them properly. The playwright Simon Block had to skip many of the intricacies of the excellent novel.  And herein lies the problem of all adaptations of written works into movies or plays.  Nevertheless Block maintains the outline of Foer’s novel, just not the details. But he ends the play with a ray of hope when they both agree“We are all the same species”.

The stage design by Kate Boyd is simple for the first act and in the second the clever glimpse of the interior of Augustine’s jam-packed house is perfect for the  intimate Aurora Theater stage, one that is surrounded on three sides by the audience.  Kurt Landisman’s lighting, Matt Stine’s sound and Callie Floor’s costumes are very effective.  Director Tom Ross, Artistic Director of the Aurora Theater, brings out the best of all the excellent actors.

“Everything is Illuminated” is one of the most outstanding plays on the stage now in the Bay Area.  It runs through December 16, 2018. or 510 843 4822.