The work of an archivist is a rare subject for the stage: long hours, rigorous attention to detail, and the contents of people’s attics typically do not lend themselves to dramatic action. In Here There Are Blueberries, now running at Shakespeare Theatre Company, Moisés Kaufman and Tectonic Theater Project have made a real-life archival investigation into the lives of staffers at the infamous concentration camps at Auschwitz into a technically impressive theatrical event that is far less concerned with thrills than it is dissecting inconvenient truths—truths that, as it happens, can still elicit gasps.
Here There Are Blueberries was devised by members of Tectonic from extant photographs, records, and testimonies, and later shaped into a text by Kaufman and co-author Amanda Gronich. It centers on a photo album donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum by a retired Lieutenant Colonel (Grant James Varjas), who discovered it while pursuing Nazi war criminals in the aftermath of the Holocaust. The mysterious man sends the album to the Museum, where archivist Rebecca Erbelding (Elizabeth Stahlmann) identifies it as an absolute treasure trove: an exceedingly rare set of photographs depicting life at Auschwitz. The problem is that the album belonged not to the victims, the very people the Museum is designed to honor, but to the perpetrators, namely Karl Höcker (Scott Barrow), the camp’s last adjutant. Backed by a team of fellow real-life archivists and experts—played by Nemuna Ceesay, Kathleen Chalfant, Erika Rose, and Charlie Thurston—Erbelding extracts all the information she can from the photographs while arguing that sharing this discovery, and seeing Höcker and his accomplices as human, is part of coming to terms with Nazi atrocities. Joining her is Tilman Taub (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), a German man who recognizes his grandfather in the photographs and sets about encouraging other descendants to confront their ancestors’ crimes.
If there is one thing to commend this largely compelling production for, it is the way it visually translates the process of historical detective work to the stage. The performers begin at a series of lit examination tables that become just a few of the many surfaces—along with whiteboards, the back wall, the edges of the proscenium—on which designer David Bengali projects the photographs and other assorted documents. The performers take turns explicating what each item contains, often aided by subtle adjustments that highlight significant findings. The largely stark surroundings of Derek McLane’s set, accentuated by Dede Ayite’s muted costumes, lend the play a clinical quality reminiscent of TV procedurals—fitting for a world-historic crime that is still being prosecuted.
In theatricalizing this process, director Kaufman and his collaborators have privileged the voices of experts. Interviews with German men who, like Taub, are coming to terms with the sins of their fathers and grandfathers lend a refreshingly personal perspective, but the scale remains tipped toward explaining the case rather than dramatizing its aftereffects. At its best, this framing invites the spectator to examine the evidence and critique the ethical failures of the perpetrators first; relating to them comes second, if it comes at all. This is evident in a uniformly strong cast that is very uniform in their approach: direct, articulate, and professional, with only minor variations in speech and movement even as they jump from character to character.
In a program note, Drew Lichtenberg, STC’s resident dramaturg, places Tectonic Theater Project in the lineage of Epic Theatre maestros Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht, who specialized in distancing the audience from the action in order to foster this kind of critical engagement. It’s an apt description of Tectonic’s past works, which include documentary dramas such as The Laramie Project and Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, yet in this context, Kaufman and company underutilize some of the tools at their disposal. The play opens with a jaunty mini-lecture, underscored by an accordion, on the proliferation of amateur photography in Germany leading up to the War, during which benign images of frolicking Teutonic families are gradually poisoned by swastikas and fascist salutes. Later, the cast briefly embodies some of the young women in Höcker’s photographs, their girlish joy chiming eerily against the grave facts of their complicity. These sudden shifts from innocence to horror unsettle an audience, suggesting that this kind of dissonance, seemingly a subject of fascination to the experts, will be a mainstay of this theatricalized investigation, but that is not the case. Here There Are Blueberries rarely strays from its documentary formula, perhaps missing an opportunity to truly drive home the fact that while millions of Jews and other “undesirables” were murdered, their killers were having a ball.
As it is, Here There Are Blueberries is an artful and considered rendition of the process of historical reconstruction, a worthy subject at a time when everything from Holocaust denial to semantic gymnastics around American slavery threatens to go mainstream. While its coolness sometimes undercuts its message, there are personable moments—like Taub’s meeting with a man who wears his name to spite his father and a late shift to center the victims—that cut deep.
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.
Here There Are Blueberries plays May 7 through 28, 2023, at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($35–$125) are available at the box office, online, or by calling (202) 547-1122. Shakespeare Theatre Company offers discounts for military servicepeople, first responders, senior citizens, young people, and neighbors, as well as rush tickets. Contact the Box Office or visit Shakespearetheatre.org/tickets-and-events/special-offers/ for more information. Audio-described and ASL-interpreted performances are also available.
The company has curated a series of events with company members, scholars, and others. See the full listing here.
COVID Safety: Masks are recommended for all productions, but not required. Read more about Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Health and Safety policies here.
A talk with a Holocaust historian and the actor who plays her in ‘Here There Are Blueberries’ (interview by Chad Kinsman, May 7, 2023)
Shakespeare Theatre Company adds ‘Here There Are Blueberries’ to season (news story, February 1, 2023)