REVIEW: Once Upon A Time In Nazi-Occupied Tunisia is a valiant attempt to reawaken history.
One of the most difficult things to pull off in the theater is black comedy. The risk of misinterpreting irony exists at all times. If it is not to fall flat on its farce, it relies on an implicit agreement between the playwright and the audience.
Josh Azouz’s piece treads a fine line between dramatic humour and downright offensiveness, occasionally straying too far into the wrong region.
It is the story of two young couples, one Jewish and the other Muslim, who had been friends for years until the coming of the invaders changes their social geography. It is set in Tunisia in 1943, immediately after the Nazis have taken over from the French Vichy government.
It begins like Beckett’s Happy Days, with Victor (Pierro Niel-Mee), a Jew, buried up to his neck in the desert, guarded by his best friend Youssef (Ethan Kai), who has joined the Nazis.
As the play progresses, it becomes evident that Azouz is using treachery and infidelity as an echo chamber for larger concerns such as collaboration and the search for identity and nation.
If the argument becomes arid at times, Adrian Edmondson’s portrayal of the Nazi commander, called “Grandma” by his men because of his penchant for knitting, saves it from utter desiccation.
Edmondson, a leering psychopath who has sights on Victor’s lively wife Loys (Yasmin Paige) and gleefully exploits his fascistic power of life and death for his own lecherous ends, totters around with a walking stick due to a knee injury.
While an electric sun beats down from above, the set is a kind of Cubist desert built of plywood boxes that open up to reveal wonderfully tiled interiors.
The play, which flirts with absurdist theater, isn’t fully effective – there are some uncomfortable story lines that don’t make sense, some conversation gaps, and Azouz struggles to bring numerous unrelated concepts together.
It is, however, a daring attempt to address a universal problem within the context of a little-known historical event.
It’s flawed, but it’s fascinating.