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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

When a Jewish Ghetto Is a Chess Match’s Stake

National Youth TheaterOne daughter in the Lipman family, Inna (Darya Semyonova), escapes just briefly from the ghetto for her music.

One of the hardest things to do in art is to make the truly horrible horrific. One misstep and tragedy becomes maudlin drama; catastrophe becomes mere adversity.

In “A Stalemate Lasts but a Moment” at the National Youth Theater, Mindaugas Karbauskis took on one of the darkest topics of the last century: the Nazis’ war against the Jews. Time has done nothing to make the pain and horror of Hitler’s so-called final solution any less shocking. This is evident in Karbauskis’ dramatization of a novel by Icchokas Meras, who as a boy miraculously survived the Jewish ghetto in Vilna, Lithuania, and went on to become a celebrated writer.

Meras, knowing full well that only understatement could bring out the truly odious nature of the extermination of East-European Jewry, focuses his tale of the annihilation of a family’s children on simple events that superficially could seem as harmless as a bouquet of flowers.

Karbauskis, too, maintains a low emotional key throughout his production. It is quiet and slow-moving, and it sneaks up on you like an anvil hurtling down on your head from 37 floors above.

At the center of the story is Avraam Lipman, a man living in the ghetto with two daughters and two sons. A fifth child, a baby girl, has been spirited out of the ghetto to be sheltered by a local family.

I say Avraam is at the center, but this is one of the strokes of genius in Karbauskis’ production. As played by Ilya Isayev, Avraam is both nearly invisible and omnipresent.

His is an enormous presence even though he rarely interacts with anyone and usually just passes through unseen, at least until most of the events have transpired. Karbauskis slowly but surely fills the stage atmosphere with the anxiety and authority that Avraam radiates in his every move and glance.

The tiniest of details have the biggest effects. At one moment Avraam merely sits and waits while a clock ticks. It is not yet harrowing because we do not know what is coming. But it surely sets us on edge.

As the pressure builds imperceptibly, we watch scenes play out with Avraam’s children.

Inna (Darya Semyonova), a singer organizing a performance in the ghetto, sneaks out briefly to “freedom” to borrow sheet music from an old friend and colleague. Rakhil (Nelli Uvarova) believes that she is blessed because the Germans, against all rules, have allowed her to give birth to a child. What she does not understand until later is that the child she is carrying is not that of her husband, but of a medical experiment foisted on her by the Germans.

Avraam’s eldest son Kasriel (Alexander Doronin) is both weak and rebellious. He knows that he will break under torture if the Germans force him to spy, and a bitter argument with his father leads to tragedy.

The youngest son Isaac (Dmitry Krivoshchapov) has the weight of the world on his shoulders. Smitten by love, he keeps trying to smuggle flowers back into the ghetto for his sweetheart, only he is invariably caught and punished.

But it is Isaac’s standoff with the German guard Schoger (Stepan Morozov) that is the fulcrum of this piece. A brilliant chess master, he is trapped into playing a chess match to the death. If he wins, he dies, but the rest of the children in the ghetto will live. If he loses, he will live, but the children will be carted to the death camps.

What if they play to a stalemate? asks Avraam.

But is that what Isaac wants to do?

Designer Anna Fyodorova keeps this grisly duel in our minds at all times, placing a row of chess boards along the back of the stage. In front of them is nothing but a long table around which everything else takes place.

“Stalemate” is a densely packed narrative exploring a myriad of inhuman events. One of the most devastating moments comes as the local family sheltering Avraam’s baby girl is executed, leaving behind their own helpless newborn. It is now up to Avraam to save their child if he can.

Karbauskis directed this emotional tale with the utmost of tact, grace, beauty and sensitivity. Working through his actors, he filled it with a hushed rage that does the extremely difficult topic justice. His entire cast responded with one of the finest examples of ensemble work I have seen this season.

This is theater that matters.

“A Stalemate Lasts but a Moment” (Nichya Dlitsya Mgnovenie) plays March 30, 31, April 9, 15 and 21 at 7 p.m. at the National Youth Theater, located at 2 Teatralnaya Ploshchad. Metro Okhotny Ryad, Teatralnaya. Tel. 692-0069, Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.