Barrington Stage Opens with a Tour De Force: The Happiest Man on Earth
Barrington Stage Co, under the leadership of Artistic Director Alan Paul, has begun his freshman year at the helm and the 2023 season opener with the world premiere of Mark St. Germain’s The Happiest Man on Earth based on the book of the same name written by Eddie Jaku. Jaku’s story is not only one of a Holocaust survivor but an individual who chose to triumph over his experiences. The subtitle of his book “The Beautiful Life of an Auschwitz Survivor” sums up his attitude and how he chose to look at life.
Kenneth Tigar takes the stage for 80+ minutes in this amazingly captivating production. While it is a one-man show, clearly Tigar is never alone on the stage. We are surrounded by a myriad of characters: from his parents, his schoolmaster, SS Troops, Dr. Mengele, a nurse in the hospital, his friends, and ultimately, his wife. They all live within Jaku, and as he takes us on the incredibly captivating journey, they live for a moment with the audience as well.
From a well-ordered life as proud, comfortable Germans who happen to be Jewish as Hitler’s rise begins, we learn how Jaku and his family quickly became Jews who happened to be living in Germany. Jaku explains the loss of their dignity, strength, and humanity is stripped away with every travail they endure, but each action manages to give him the strength to endure and go on. We live with Jaku through Kristallnacht, The Night of Broken Glass, his times in various concentration camps, the famed death march, and various escapes. The audience travels with Jaku for years during World War II.
Director Ron Lagomarsino has done a masterful job of getting every nuance possible out of Tigar’s magnificent tour de force performance. James Noone’s simple, stark set design becomes imagined into a multitude of locations when combined with Maria-Cristina Fuste’s lighting design and Brendan Aane’s sound design.
The importance of this amazing production can not be understated. As many Holocaust survivors are dying off, it is a time period that can not be lost in the tidal wave of history. Many of today’s youth have no direct connection to this era either through parents, grandparents, relatives, or directly know people who lived through it. The audience at Sunday’s opening performance was mostly middle-aged and older. Predominantly people who remembered. While that is important, we must get our teens, the people in their 20’s to see this show. It is not a comfortable show to sit through, but it is a must-see.
The rise of Antisemitism throughout the world and in the US today cannot be minimized. Productions like The Happiest Man on Earth keep the message of the past alive. Nothing like this can ever be allowed again. While difficult to watch, (and there was not a sound, a ruffle of a candy wrapper or a cough from the audience throughout the production) this production can not be missed. Jaku leaves us, however, on a very optimistic note.
Eddie tells us at the show’s conclusion that “I hate no one, not even him (Hitler). I do not forgive him. If I forgive, I am a traitor to the six million who died. I must not simply remember I must also live for them the best life I can.” He leaves us with the words of his father: Family first, family second, family last, And we are all family.
Make it your business, your duty, to go and see this production. What an amazing start to a theatrical season. How wonderful to see Alan Paul and Barrington Stage step up and make such an impactful statement.
The Happiest Man On Earth runs through June 17 on the St. Germain Stage at the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, 36 Linden St. Pittsfield. For ticket information: www.barringtonstageco.org or call the box office: 413-236-8888.