Dedicated to bringing the world to St. Louis, Upstream Theater takes a to Poland this time for an engrossing and compelling tale based on the memoirs of Kazimierz Moczarski (adapted by artistic director Philip Boehm). It's a fascinating story based on his own experience in Warsaw, originally involved in counter-intelligence during the second World War before being imprisoned by the Stalinist Polish secret police and charged with cooperating with the enemy. With Conversations with an Executioner, Boehm and company have produced a brilliant piece of work that it well worth your time and attention.
When the play starts, Moczarski has just been brutally interrogated and is placed in a cell by his captors. Oddly enough, he's to bunk with Jurgen Stroop, a man he once tried to assassinate, along with Stroop's subordinate, Gustaw Schilke. Though at first he's angered by the situation, since Stroop was an SS General who took on the task of purging the Warsaw Ghetto of all undesirables, later he begins to study the man for clues to his motivations for these despicable deeds. His goal is to commit to memory every detail of Stroop's operation, even though he strains to remain in control as he's forced to relive these painful events.
J. Samuel Davis does exemplary work as Kazimierz, keeping his rage under control as he tries to glean specific information from Stroop. Gary Wayne Barker also excels as Stroop, aloof to a degree, and proud of the work he accomplished, even if he sometimes paints it as dutiful police work. John Bratkowski balances the two, though his allegiance may be to Stroop, being a former policeman before the war began, he understands the extraordinary lengths that Stroop went to clear the Ghetto, and has his qualms about how the operation proceeded. He also seems to respect Kazimierz, even though they fought on opposite sides. Robert Mitchell is solid as the guard, although he really only gets one scene, when he's sweeping through their cell to look for contraband, or anything else that might be of interest. Isaac Lifits adds to the atmosphere with his accordion playing, neatly underscoring the action.
Once again, Boehm has put together a wonderful ensemble for his play, and he directs the taut piece with a sure hand. Scott Neale's set design places the audience right in the action, with chairs on the floor and above, putting the viewer directly in the midst. Michele Siler's costumes are period authentic, and Steve Carmichael's lighting adds the necessary dour mood.
This excellent production of Conversations with an Executioner continues through April 29, 2012. Don't miss it, it's an exceptional presentation with powerful performances.