Love and art face doom in gripping Shoah tragedy

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True story: There was a German-Jewish actress and her non-Jewish actor-husband. They had prominent careers. They had a child. After the Nazi rise to power they had trouble. Ultimately faced with a choice between divorce from one another and deportation to Theresienstadt for wife and son, they made a suicide pact. Meta Wolf, Joachim Gottschalk and their son died together rather than live apart.

Bay Area playwright and longtime Magic Theater collaborator John O’Keefe’s gripping Holocaust drama “Times Like These” tells their story in a series of short, tense dramatic scenes that reach beyond the 1930s setting all the way into times like our own. At one point in the play, Meta describes the Nazi modus operandi as “to keep a state of emergency.” Ring any bells?

After a smash Southern California run (L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award, 2002) the play has come to Traveling Jewish Theatre in San Francisco, original cast intact and directed by the playwright himself. Interestingly, none — actors Laurie O’Brien and Norbert Weisser and playwright-director O’Keefe — happen to be Jewish. It matters little. The story is universal; the acting nothing short of superb.

Some historical fact has been tweaked for the drama. There is no child. Joachim Gottschalk has been re-named Oskar Wolf. In reality, Meta Wolf was an indifferent actress, her husband a big star. Here it is the other way around. Meta, a former superstar of the Prussian State Theater, is forbidden to work under the new regime. Frightened, frustrated and bored, she prods and coaches her husband until he captures first the part of Petruchio in “Taming of the Shrew” and then the title role in “Hamlet.”

But the “Hamlet” conceived by Meta is the quintessential Nazi. Against his will, she goads Oskar into a violent interpretation of the Shakespeare text and the audience eats it up. So does the Nazi brass. At moments, the normally rational and relatively mild actor seems to have internalized his “Hamlet” as well.

Meta, in point of fact, is driving him crazy. She does not get dressed or go out of the house for weeks. She rocks catatonically back and forth in terror. When he takes her to get her identity card, she collapses. Other times, she is a whirlwind of energy, taking risks, staying out past curfew to attend a poetry reading, recklessly using the phone when keeping a low profile is the order of the day. Finally — and this leads to her doom — she risks everything to see her husband on the stage.

And considers it worth it. As much as this is a drama of the Holocaust, it is a story about the theater, about its irresistible pull — the smell of the greasepaint, the roar of the crowd. And it is a love story. Meta has an early chance to escape to Switzerland but she cannot bear to leave Oskar. Neither can he repudiate her, even at the cost of his life. The subtext is the vehicle through which the larger events are revealed.

O’Brien and Weisser (the latter previously seen on the TJT stage in “See Under: Love”) play their roles as if they were born to them. The setting is Richard Olmsted’s authentic ’30s apartment, complete with antique standing radio, from which the couple can see the burning Reichstag and hear the horror of Kristallnacht (realistically terrifying sound effects by Olan Jones). Bridget Phillips’ costumes, especially for O’Brien, who wears them with flair, are period-perfect.

If there is a problem with this play it may be the episodic nature. Many scenes are quick, unfolding and fading to blackout with the staccato rapidity of machine-gun blasts. Some people may find this jarring, preferring the parts where the action unfolds more slowly. But perhaps that, too, is a metaphor for our times.

Times Like These,” sponsored by the Holocaust Center of Northern California, plays at Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida St., S.F., Thursdays-Sundays through Feb. 22. At the Julia Morgan Theatre, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley on Feb. 26-29. Tickets are $24-28. Information: (415) 285-8080 or www.atjt.com.