Friday, February 20, 2004

Students ace 'Ghetto' lessons

Theater reviews

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Sal Cacciato as Jacob Gens and Michael Littig as SS officer Kittel are outstanding in CCM's production of Ghetto.

A bravo to College-Conservatory of Music's drama department for setting its sights at chilling and challenging Ghetto, Joshua Sobol's relentless, three-hour fictional exploration of life and death in the Vilna Ghetto during 1942 and 1943.

In Vilna there is horror and madness - by the end of the Nazi occupation, only 3,000 of 60,000 Jews have survived. There is also humanity and, surprisingly, art. For more than a year, a theater troupe performs songs, poetry, prayers for the dead.

Ghetto is an enormous undertaking for a student ensemble and takes most of the sophomore, junior and senior classes to fill the cast.

Director Richard Hess has created one of the most memorable theater evenings of the season in this free Studio Series entry. Hess does the most important things - even when his students can't quite rise to mature and complex characterizations, everyone absolutely understands their roles, the drama and their place in the action. This must be one of their great learning experiences, and first and foremost CCM is a training conservatory. That's what these productions are all about.

Just as vitally, Hess creates a compelling and fluid stage picture, the ensemble beautifully orchestrated behind the barbed wire barrier that separates actors from audience. Except for some brief flagging in the second act (on the part of the script, not the company), Ghetto is near hypnotic.

The play stays close to the acting troupe as it lays out a drama driven by internal and external conflicts. Must some die for others to live? Who? Why? What is collaboration with the enemy and what is buying one more day of survival?

The astonishing twosome in Ghetto is Eric Yellin and Morgan Rosse as a ventriloquist and his dummy. You can't take your eyes off Rosse in this showiest of roles, performed perched stiffly on a high stool. They are a terrific teaming as they face off with psychotic Nazi officer Kittel (Michael Littig) and Yellin rises to the riveting finale of the play.

Littig grapples with a brutal role - playing whimsical psychosis is Oscar-fodder in movies - and if he doesn't quite master it he certainly impressively meets it head-on.

Other standouts in the cast are Sal Cacciato as the head of the Ghetto, Julianna Bloodgood as an actress and Eric Kilpatrick as the Ghetto librarian who maintains a journal of daily life in the Ghetto. (Original journals are a large part of Sobol's source material.)

Ghetto isn't fun; it's emotionally exhausting, which is one of many definitions of a successful night at the theater.

Ghetto, 8 p.m. today, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday, CCM Cohen Family Theater, University of Cincinnati. 556-4183.


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