There is no shortage of plays, movies and television shows centering on the Holocaust. It is an incredibly difficult subject to broach and yet an important one to depict. Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of “Here There Are Blueberries” continues the conversation about this unthinkable moment in history, and manages to do so in an incredibly innovative and brilliant new way. Hands down, the best play I’ve seen this season.
…incredibly innovative and brilliant…Hands down, the best play I’ve seen this season…suggests this is destined to become an iconic theatrical work.
“Here There Are Blueberries” was conceived by Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project and written by Kaufman and Amanda Gronich. Kaufman, a highly acclaimed Venezuelan playwright and director, is perhaps best known for having a hand in developing “The Laramie Project” and the Doug Wright penned, Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, “I Am My Own Wife.” Quite suitably, “Here There Are Blueberries” began as a collaborative effort with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC. From there, the story took on a life of its own, culminating in a theatrical work that is part docudrama, part multimedia event, and part touching tribute to the millions killed during Holocaust.
At the center of this play is a photo album. In fact, the production begins with a rather clever introduction spotlighting the rise of recreational photography. From there, the show dives deep into the motivation behind why we take the photos we do and what happens when any one photo is put beneath a magnifying glass—what clues to history can be unlocked this way?
Based on true events and an actual album, “Here There Are Blueberries” carefully guides audiences into Auschwitz in a way that no film, play, or show has ever really done so before. We enter the horrific experience of it all through the eyes of one Karl Höcker, for it is his album around which the play pivots. Höcker’s scrapbook of sorts was discovered by an American lieutenant and anonymously donated to the Holocaust Museum. The museum’s overarching dilemma: do they display a book of photos that depicts only Nazis, and what’s more, shows them during those times when they were apart from their military iterations; in other words, as men and yes, women too, enjoying themselves, celebrating holidays, basking in the sun, and playing with their pets. Does ascribing this kind of humanity to the mercenary soldiers in question compromise the mission of the museum which is to honor the victims?
The team at the museum grapples with this question throughout the 90-minute play. In coming to terms with their decision to go ahead and display the album, the museum team reaches out to some of the family members of the individuals shown in the photos. We also, consequently, get to hear their stories—what must it have been like to grow up knowing who your father or grandfather was, your sister even, and understanding all too well what they did. Is their infamous and dastardly legacy forever imprinted on the branches of their family tree, or do their descendants deserve to escape the horrors hidden in the family closet?
There is one point in the play during which one of the principal members of the museum’s team ruminates, “These images can take over your mind after studying them for so long.” The way in which they’re utilized in this production also places the audience in danger of a similar fate—that seems to be precisely the point. The images—by virtue of their authenticity; by virtue of the unimaginable parts of the camp that are not shown; and because of the way in which David Bengali and his projection design team artistically reproduce and highlight certain aspects of the photos—burn themselves into the audience’s brain for the duration of the show…and beyond.
The actors are brilliantly on point given the job that they set out to do—get people to think about the Holocaust in a different way, a no less grim way, but one in which the question of memorializing takes on a potentially controversial tone. Here is an ensemble cast that electrifies in their subdued, yet, still thought-provoking, collaborative approach, as well as the way in which each portrays an individual grappling with their own monumental ideological struggle. They make a herculean task look all too easy. It was an honor to watch them perform.
The set design by Derek McLane), lighting design by David Lander, sound design by Bobby McElver and projection design here are what take this from a masterful production to one that has the capacity to blow you away. It must be seen to be appreciated for the depth, dimension, and thoughtfulness that go into all aspects of this production. Under Kaufman’s insightful direction, we get to see story intermingle with key documentary moments, all underlined by the kind of luminescent dramatic sensibility that suggests this is destined to become an iconic theatrical work.
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
“Here There Are Blueberries” runs through May 28, 2023 at Shakespeare Theatre Company, Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW, Washington, DC 20004. For more information and tickets, call the Box Office at 202.547.1122, seven days a week, 12-6 pm (Box Office windows remain open until curtain time) or go online.