Notes to the Motherland
nytheatre.com review by Ishah Janssen-Faith
August 13, 2007
I always find that how the stage is set before the show starts is a good indication of what is in store. The stage for Notes to the Motherland is set with two chairs and a bench, with a housecoat and skirt hanging on the back curtain. Knowing this to be a one-man show, I now know it will rely almost entirely on this one man to tell the story, pure and simple, without the muddling of lots of sets and costumes. They do well to set the scene this way, because that is exactly what I got. Paul Rajeckas comes on stage and simply starts telling us the story, his story. He talks directly to us, in a soft, melodic voice and you want to listen. What unfolds is a complex tale of family history, secrets, shame, and discovery. Throughout it all, however, Rajeckas always comes back to himself, to talk to us, simply and calmly. His smile lights up the whole theatre, and you will go anywhere with him.
Oh and the places he goes. He starts as a boy, listening to stories of the Motherland from his mother and imagining being a superhero who rescues his 20 aunts, uncles and cousins from their life in Lithuania. Rajeckas has so much fun in this sequence in particular, I wish he could have stayed in the superhero dream longer. As the story progresses though his life, we find out more and more about his family's involvement in World War II. He discovers that his mother had worked for the Gestapo during the war, and that was the reason she was able to escape to America. On the other side of the family, his father's mother had risked her own life to bring food to the Jews in the ghetto of their village. You can see clearly the pull of these two women throughout the whole play, which is beautifully represented by the skirt and housecoat on the back curtain. As the boy grows into a man, we realize the superhero rescue is not needed for the family in Lithuania, but is very much needed here in America. We begin with the comic book version of Life in America with Baseball, TV and Radio, but Rajeckas leaves us with a clear picture of how America really is for an immigrant family. And the distance between the two is great.
Rajeckas is obviously a well-trained physical actor, with compositional tricks to bring us here and there with the flick of a wrist. His director, George L. Chieffet, has a keen eye to rein in this force and siphon it this way and that to tell a clear story. You can also see that Rajeckas enjoys this method of storytelling very much. He uses a rich soundtrack, which he also voiced, to portray many of the other characters in order to have two- and three-person scenes. He also uses the soundscape to create a larger world than what we see on stage. He has timed out the movements and the sound perfectly, so they are moving as one organism. Throughout all this display of technical prowess, his characters retain their humanity; they are flawed but they are lovable. If Rajeckas slips into the sentimental at times to elicit empathy from us, I forgive him. He loves his characters, and only wants us to love them too.