Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga's powerful psychological horror show takes as its inspiration Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp that was disguised as a charming town to fool visiting Red Cross investigators. The play opens with audience members being allowed to tour an onstage exhibit of actual items from the camp — a pillar containing old posters advertising fake cabaret shows in the nonexistent nightclub, for instance. When the performance itself starts, the actors use the props and items we've just been examining, thus creating an environmental experience that's perfect for director Ron Sossi's evocative staging.
A Red Cross worker (Michael McGee) relates his memories of a tour of the fake concentration camp, which appeared to be populated by a genially gentlemanly Prison Commandant (the chillingly perfect Norbert Weisser) and a group of Jewish inmates, happily portraying "villagers." Utilizing a lyrical structure that loops back and forth through time, Mayorga relates the events from several different points of view — not just the Red Cross worker's, but also that of the deranged, giggly insane commandant. Gentle scenes of children playing onstage, or a young couple on a date, are replayed, each time with increasing terror that suggests a rehearsal process for which the stakes of a bad performance are death.
As his tale unfolds, Mayorga's disjointed, nonlinear structure (in David Johnston's taut translation) avoids standard tropes of melodrama as the theme shifts from the historical to a meditation on the nature of lying, and then on to a subtle and rather chilling satire of the deceptive nature of theater itself. Sossi crafts a mood of palpable onstage terror, and cracklingly compelling turns are offered by Weisser's terrifying commandant, by Bruce Katzman's broken Jewish camp inmate and by McGee's appalled Red Cross worker.
WAY TO HEAVEN (HIMMELWEG) | Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A. | Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. (no perfs Oct. 24-30) | Through Dec. 18 | (310) 477-2055, odysseytheatre.com