daniel goldfarb 88.
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Daniel Goldfarb's latest play, The Retributionists, is a romantic thriller about a band of young Jewish freedom fighters who try to kill off their German oppressors in the year following World War II.
It opened at the Playwrights Horizons on 42nd Street in New York earlier this month, the same week that Quentin Tarentino's fantastical rewrite of World War II, Inglourious Basterds, hit the screen. Both are about Jews who seek revenge on Germany, but Goldfarb insists they have little else in common. The key difference, he says, is that his play is based on a true story.
The Retributionists, which runs through tonight, takes its plot from escapees from the Vilna ghetto led by Abba Kovner, who in 1946 tried unsuccessfully to poison the water supplies of major German cities.
"On some level, as exhilarated as you can be (watching films of post-Holocaust revenge), you can't take them seriously," said Goldfarb. "They are playing with the facts of war."
A New York Times article from 1946 posted in the lobby of the theater reminds the audience that what it is viewing isn't made up, and that ultimately the group of avengers failed: Kovner was arrested, and an alternative plan to kill SS guards held in American POW camps resulted in several thousand cases of food poisoning, but no deaths.
The play, directed by Leigh Silverman, follows Dov, the passionate ringleader (Adam Driver), Anika (Margarita Levieva), Dinchka (Cristin Milioti) and Jascha (Adam Rothenberg) as they try to enact their plan for retribution.
"We will be cruel to the Nazis and by our cruelty they'll know who we are," proclaims Dov.
They had concocted their plan while living in the forest after their escape from the ghetto. As the play makes clear, the plan gave them something to live for. But once the war ends, the characters begin to reevaluate their feelings about revenge (and about each other). Scenes of plotting in a Paris hotel room trade off with dramatic declarations of love - and the characters' feelings about both are equally confused.
"It is hard for me to articulate my feelings about revenge, which is part of why I wrote the play," says Goldfarb. "What got them through the war was the idea of revenge, and I am interested in what the human need for revenge does to us. Now the war is over, what do you do with that dream?"
All four have different answers. For Dov it's Plan A, to poison the water streams. For Anika it's Plan B, targeting SS officers, the real villains. Jascha wants to use love to move on with his life, and Dinchka chooses Palestine as an alternative to retribution.
"They all allow themselves at certain points to let go of hate, except Anika, whom it ultimately consumes," says Goldfarb.
THOUGH THE PLAY centers around a historical moment following World War II, Goldfarb chose the story in part because he saw in it a way to address contemporary events "without writing an op-ed." He avoided 9/11 in the years following the attacks for fear of sounding trite. But a year ago, while working on a screenplay version of Laura Blumenfeld's Revenge: A Story of Hope, he came across the story of Kovner and his band of fighters, and knew he had found a way to address the events.
No less important was the opportunity to publicize a part of Holocaust history that decades later remains relatively obscure.
"As someone who has read a lot about the Holocaust, I was amazed that I didn't know this story and felt immediately that this was a way to write about today, 9/11 and the Middle East," Goldfarb says. "After 9/11, so many of my peers wanted to write about it, but it's very hard to contribute something new to the dialogue. I felt this is a great story that taps into primal human feelings of revenge and vengeance, and if I could tell the story as clearly as I could, it would be a terrific period piece, and very 'now,' very contemporary."
In the play, Israel offers one of the only viable alternatives to revenge - the not-yet-formed country provides hope where there isn't any. But Goldfarb was careful not to paint a simplistic picture.
"I wanted to remind people of the need for Israel, but also that it wasn't a utopia," he says. "It was complicated from the start."
Goldfarb is known for his satires that explore different aspects of contemporary Jewish identity, including his 1999 breakthrough play about assimilation, Adam Baum and the Jew Movie, and Modern Orthodox (2004), which touches on the secular-religious divide. Those familiar with his work may be surprised by The Retributionists, which offers a far less humoristic outlook.
"For a play to be good, you need to explore aspects of yourself, to write from your own experiences, write about what you are confused about," Goldfarb says when asked whether he feels limited by writing about Jewish identity.
He learned that lesson early on in college and it has served him well. As a freshman, he wrote a satire of the Jewish community in Toronto, followed the next year by a less successful play about love in an ice cream parlor.
"It's so clichÃ© to say 'write what you know,' but I was lucky enough to find it out when I was 19," Goldfarb says. "When I sit down to write my plays - my most personal writing - I always find that there is a constant need for exploration. I have many more plays inside me that will continue to explore what it means to be Jewish."