One day in my high school’s usually rather dull European History class, our professor arranged for a guest visit that even his most bored students keenly anticipated. He brought a survivor from a concentration camp to come and speak with us. In the days before his arrival we were all brimming with excitement and devising questions to ask him. I had a question I was burning to ask. Then this nice old German Jew turned American immigrant after the war came in and told us his story; about the “work camp” he’d been sent to, about how he used a marker to change the number on his arm so he’d be given work detail instead of “special treatment,” and about all his friends and family who hadn’t found a marker.
The room became so silent the sound of a pencil dropping to the floor would have seemed like an explosion. I didn’t know how to ask the question that had been haunting me, until our guest lecturer mentioned how he had returned to Germany afterwards. In response to one of my classmates queries, he explained that everyone there treated him well. “They all said they didn’t know.” He told us with a smile and a shrug. That is when I found the necessary opening to ask him what I had wanted to ask all along, “Do you think they knew?” He looked at me for intently for a moment and replied, “In some of the camps they were so far away in the middle of nowhere…but other camps like Buchenwald were near the cities. They could see the plumes of smoke from the crematoriums. They could smell the burning flesh. They knew.”
At some point watching The Extermination Machine, a capstone production to the Capital Fringe Festival at the (thankfully air conditioned DC Arts Center in Adams Morgan), I felt my eyes well up with tears as I recollected that lesson. Here is a show with only two performers on a single set where every bit of dialogue is taken from actual transcripts of Eichmann’s interrogation by Captain Avner Less after his capture and before his trial. In 80 minutes we are given a glimpse into the abyss. Adolf Eichmann who masterminded the coldly efficient genocide plan of the Nazis keeps referring to himself as “unimportant” and “a cog in the machine.” He insists that since he never personally shot or gassed anyone then the blood is not on his hands. The truly scary part is that he might just believe it.
Of all the monsters of the Third Reich, Eichmann was somehow considered particularly emblematic and terrifying because he wasn’t a traditional monster. He was not especially fond of the visceral aspects of extermination, he wasn’t wrathful, he displayed none of the earmarks of a typical psychopath, and he personally directed more than five million people to their deaths. Kim Curtis veteran of The Washington Opera and member of The Washington Shakespeare Company, puts himself in a venue much smaller than what he’s used to (the entire theatre is smaller than some rec rooms I’ve seen but this only adds to the intimacy of the production—you’re so close to the performers you can feel their breath), to take on such a role was a brave move on his part, but he’s up to the challenge. His Eichmann is as smooth, slippery, and chilling as an ice cube; he wears the mask of an affable charming sort of fellow so well we almost forget what he is, but every now and then Curtis lets the mask slip long enough to see the darkness underneath. James Radack’s Captain Less is a worthy foil—a man who seems to be visibly shaking throughout the play trying to keep himself from tearing Eichmann to pieces. They’re a mesmerizing duo to watch and playwright/director Michael Wright’s work may well have a future beyond this tiny stage. But it’s not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach.
SeeNoSun OnStage Presents
The Exterminator Machine
DC Arts Center
7:30 p.m., July 27, 28, and 29, 2012