The lights go down and Simon Wiesenthal is standing before me. Except that the lights don’t really go down and of course, this man is not Simon Wiesenthal. But Tom Dugan thoroughly transforms into a living, breathing version of the man best known as The Nazi Hunter. His mode of movement suggests Wiesenthal’s age at retirement. He shuffles stiffly as he retrieves files and phone numbers. He uses the strength of his arms to cross his legs when he sits heavily in his chair, hoisting one over the other and slowly setting it in place.
The set is simple but evocative: a messy desk, a large map with Jewish stars and red buildings to denote camps. The lights stay bright to suggest that we’re in the office with him. The atmosphere of Wiesenthal (Nazi Hunter) is interactive with Dugan looking directly at us and even posing questions in the specific Austro-Hungarian dialect he mastered with the help of a professional coach. The Studio Theatre at Meridian Arts Centre is the perfect setting for this intimate experience.
In contrast to his body, Dugan’s eyes reflect the energy, determination and obsession that would be necessary to persist as Wiesenthal did to achieve what he did. In yet another contrast, his facial expression is all moxie. In his research, Dugan spoke to many people who relayed Wiesenthal’s favourite jokes, some of which he includes in the show. Dugan even discovered that Wiesenthal was an amateur comic. This enables Dugan to walk a fine line as he creates a three-dimensional character: entertaining audiences, while respecting the tragic nature of the underlying story. Otherwise, it would be unbearable.
Chatting with Dugan after the show, he refers to this balance as a “dance”. Each performance includes a talk-back, enabling audience members to ask about both the production and the real-life hero. In her introduction, Phyllis Feldman, artistic director and executive producer of Teatron Toronto Jewish Theatre calls the talk-backs “the best part of the show”. Teatron timed the show to coincide with Holocaust Education Week. In an emotional introduction, Feldman dedicates the play to her beloved mother-in-law, a survivor who died earlier this year at the age of 99. During the talk back, Dugan called on a survivor in the audience whose name he had been given. Now out of character, in jeans and a baseball cap, the actor bounds up the stairs to shake the man’s hand. This prompted two other survivors to come forward, adding poignancy to the evening.
Dugan is back in Toronto for a third time with this one-man-show he researched, wrote and acts in. Dugan hails from Los Angeles. In addition to TV and film credits, Dugan has become synonymous with one-man theatre. Wiesenthal has taken him across North America and he has his sights set on Europe and Israel.
The other characters in the story are only suggested. His secretary is expected to pick him up. His wife calls to remind him to leave on time and pick up milk. Most significantly, Wiesenthal repeatedly calls a hotel where he suspects that a Nazi war criminal is secretly living and tries to trick the employee into confirming this knowledge using a clever ruse.
Notwithstanding his legacy of tolerance, Wiesenthal stresses that he wants to leave us with “knowledge of the horror and awareness of the danger” as well as “rejection of collective guilt”, referring to the excuse that so many Nazis used that they were simply following orders. He succeeds.
His expression shifts as he recalls a man separated from his son in a Nazi lineup. Father motions to son to re-join his line, only to see him shot in the face for the transgression. This man, Jacob, is reluctant to re open his “Pandora’s Box” of pain to testify.
Wiesenthal describes his mother Rosa, who secretly ate nothing for three days in order that he and his young wife should have more, her ploy, only discovered when she collapsed. When she dodges deportation by relinquishing her watch at Wiesenthal’s suggestion, she tells him to buy a potato so she can make soup to celebrate. She is soon taken anyway. Wiesenthal describes, in excruciating detail, hearing the human cries for water from the cattle car, seeing it sit unmoving for days, all the while knowing his mother is inside and he, unable to do anything.
The play references the Armenian genocide as well as Darfur. It also mentions Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and other groups who comprised the 11 million murdered in the Holocaust, which Wiesenthal calls not only a Jewish tragedy, but a human tragedy. And the many who died after the war, too far gone to come back to life.
Wiesenthal had a toe cut off as punishment for looking directly into the eyes of a guard, which developed into gangrene. In a dramatic moment, Dugan transitions to the younger Wiesenthal at war’s end, so close to death he’s not sure whether he’s hallucinating. We hear his heartbeat dramatically as he reaches for stars. The stars are not in the sky but rather on the star spangled banner and he is helped by an American soldier to touch the flag upon liberation.
Wiesenthal (Nazi Hunter) is playing at the Meridian Arts Centre in Toronto through Nov. 10.