Tamar Rogoff, a 54-year-old experimental- theatre artist and choreographer, is famous for turning impossible things into “art.” She did a show in which the actors were six-month-old babies, another in which the actors were both blind and deaf, and yet a third in which a plot unfolded-is this improbable, or what?-through honest-to-God insomniacs trying to get sleep in various nooks and crannies of the theatre. “I love the challenges of creating art in the face of hurdles,” Rogoff says with characteristic understatement. “You’re never on automatic.”
Summer in Ivye, however, Rogoff’s 70-minutB film, takes the prize for Most Astonishing Leap of Artistic Faith. For she assembled 34 professional actors from five countries (ages 5 to 91), seven translators, three seamstresses (to create dozens of 193D’s costumes], ten professional dancers and musicians, 19 children, five local elderly Jews to serve as both “living historians” and “actors,” and many townsfolk from the little village of Ivye to manage the soup kitchen that daily fed Rogoff’s 100-person crew during weeks of rehearsals and performances.
Rogoff’s “stage,” she decided, would be the forest of Ivye (in Belarus-Summer in Ivye was first a live theatre piece, then made into this film), and the audience would troop around from scene to scene, each hidden in various copses in the woods. And the story that she would dramatize would be that of the Jewish community of Ivye before May of 1942. In April of 1942, the town was 76% Jewish. But on a single day in May, the Nazis shot 25G0 Jews in Ivye, every person who could not be used for slave labor. The mass grave site (actually two long trenches where Jews were murdered and piled up] was now two enormous raised rectangles of grass with a brick wall on one side and a wrought-iron gate on the other, hulking at the far edge of the forest. Rogoff decided that she would stage the last scene of her play there.
Why Ivye? Rogoff’s grandfather had immigrated to the US from Ivye, and throughout Rogoff’s childhood he reminisced about the village as if it were gan eden. Her father had spent a summer there, with his grandfather, in 1935, and he kept a diary, rhapsodizing as well about the town’s warmth and beauty, and about the extraordinary richness and breadth of Jewish life there. “I didn’t know until I showed up in the town one day, on a lark-I happened to be in Lithuania,” says Rogoff, “that 29 Rogoffs had been murdered by the Nazis. My father didn’t tell me, and I didn’t ask. The few Jews left in Ivye showed me a hand-lettered book of all the names. They were so excited that I was a Rogoff. I decided that I owed it to these ‘names’ to figure out how to mourn them.”
Rogoff followed her feelings. “1 had a childish wish to spend time with my relatives, to see what it was like to be put to bed by them, to be lifted in the air by them, to be there at the Pesach table, to be at their weddings, to smell like them, and walk like them, and have eyes that twinkled like theirs. 1 wanted to fill the woods with the Jews of Ivye. I knew the forest itself was shouting history people had walked to their deaths there. But I felt equipped to go for the ‘lite.'”
And indeed the videotape of the project-capturing not just a performance but the whole experience-rehearsals, the reactions of Jewish and non-Jewish ‘actors’ recruited from the town, the Babel of languages, the children dressed in 1930s school uniforms gorging on blueberries in the forest, their tongues blue-is almost unbearably moving. For what Rogoff has managed to do is ‘unbury’ the unmourned and let them stand for themselves, so that then, perhaps, they can he properly buried.
In the play itself, the audience follows the show’s protagonist the eminent and charismatic Lithuanian actor, Kostas Smoriginas-through the woods, creeping up to eavesdrop on one little “scene” after another; a teenager crouches behind some bushes, showing a younger boy how to inhale a cigarette,- a rebbe is carried from the train station fay his singing disciples,- an old man feeds his old wife cherries, kissing her between each bite (“Walk on by! Don’t stare at them!” Smoriginas scolds the audience],- a middle-aged couple in a doorframe anxiously hands over their samovar to a young blond woman for safekeeping,- a teacher takes roll in her classroom and each child shouts, “Here!”,- four men-half dancing-play a game of cards, comically rotating seats,- a melamed and a yeshiva bocher snore on their piles of books,- a little girl is put to bed fay her grandfather, who first takes her for a ride on his cane and then recites the bedtime prayer (printed in large Hebrew letters across her goose-down comforter),- a lazybones shoemaker lounges on his elbow . . . each idiosyncratic vignette (just shards of vignettes, really] heartbreaking in their particularity, so “rear’-so much the stuff that theatre’s not made of-that it takes one’s breath away. The feeling, as the audience moves through the trees, becomes one of stealth and magical surprise-like stumbling on a deer and her fawns while hiking, or on wood sprites, suddenly realizing that of course they exist.
By the time the theatre audience gets to the imposing mass grave site, they are stunned to realize that there are suddenly Jews to mourn, many of them: the schoolboy who got kissed by the brazen girl; the group of friends who huddled around one another, burying candlesticks; the old woman tending her nutty ‘garden’ made up of hundreds of knives and forks sticking upright in the soil; the middle-aged couple entranced with each other, dancing dreamily between the trees; the lazy shoemaker; the old, rotund woman who stepped forward when the director of The Dybbuk yelled in frustration, ‘Mother! Show them how to do it!,” and she did-each of them having crept up, their scenes finished, to hide behind the monument’s massive wall, and then silently pop their heads up over it. The film viewer sees tears rolling down audience members’ cheeks. Indeed, Rogoff has surprised all of us, for we feel ourselves suddenly mourning, although we hadn’t really known that there was anything we’d failed to mourn.
During a film interview in an Ivye resident’s home, an elderly Jewish woman, who in May of 1342 was a little girl, tells Rogoff, “We have been sitting around this table talking for years, waiting for this to happen.”
Somehow, art has let people grieve. It hasn’t asked us to forgive; it hasn’t asked us not to forgive. It has asked us to unbury a handful of grownups and teenagers and children, to let them live for one oblivious hour . .. and then let them, like little ghosts, slip hack to the grave.