'The Twenty-Seventh Man' Shows Hope Amid Tragedy

By Renee Valois
Special to the Pioneer Press
October 19, 2015

Set a play in Russia during 1952 with Jewish protagonists and you can bet it's not going to be a comedy.

Hitler set the tone in the 1930s and 1940s with the Holocaust. His enemy, Josef Stalin, who at first appeared friendly to the Jews, continued the horror when his paranoia during the Cold War led to the abrupt arrest and imprisonment of prominent Russian Jews, including some of the greatest Yiddish writers in the country.

"The Twenty-Seventh Man" from Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company was inspired by the resulting "Night of the Murdered Poets."

Director Kurt Schweickhardt has created a compelling show that's mostly contained within a single prison cell -- housing four men grappling with questions of life and death, the price of betrayal and what it means to be a writer.

The show feels far larger than the space it inhabits.

Into a group of famous Yiddish authors, guards toss a young man who's driven to write daily but has never published a word. Does that make him a writer? How did he become a threat to the regime?

Michael Torsch gives the young man, Pinchas, laser-focused passion for writing and burning awe of his long-time idols that he unexpectedly meets under the worst of circumstances.

His intensity is matched by Gabriel Murphy as the arrogant, self-aggrandizing Korinsky, who fancies himself a friend of Stalin and imprisoned by mistake because his poetry is mostly paeans to the state and its leader.

He boasts a high opinion of his own writing as opposed to the other two poets in the cell -- who are Pinchas' true heroes.

Their more subdued acting in counterpoint to the fervor of Pinchas and Korinsky gives the production welcome shades of light and dark.

Joher Coleman as Bretzky has the tough task of explaining why he returned to Russia when he could have stayed safely in America. Michael Kissin as Zunser, the legendary master of Yiddish writing, brings a tough wisdom and clarity to the future that faces them -- and a fearlessness in the face of death brought about by repeated encounters with tragedy.

There is plenty of tension and some violence in this play about the power of writing and the terror of evil. It's as well done as we've come to expect from the MJTC -- and as serious in tone.

Bretzky says that Hitler was trying to physically wipe out the Jews, but Stalin aimed to destroy their soul. Clearly he did not succeed. Although dark, this play suggests that tragedy can be illuminated by hope -- and the power of words can live on long after those who have written them are gone.