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Israeli Playwright Crafts Stirring Drama of Jewish Life in Nazi-Occupied Lithuania. THEATER: REVIEW

GHETTO Play by Joshua Sobol in an English version by David Lan, with music by Paul Epstein. Directed by Gedalia Besser. Starring Jarlath Conroy, Donal Donnelly, Avner Eisenberg, George Hearn, Stephen McHattie, Helen Schneider. At the Circle in the Square Theatre, Manhattan. ``Ghetto'' is a sprawling, sporadically stirring, and ultimately tragic account of life in the Nazi-occupied Jewish ghetto of Vilna, Lithuania, during World War II. Subtitled ``The Last Performance in the Vilna Ghetto,'' Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol's mingling of real and imagined events uses the heroic band of Jewish performers as a reference point for a commemorative play about one community's Holocaust ordeal.

As the play opens, Srulik (Avner Eisenberg), the resident ventriloquist, tells how he suddenly found himself placed in charge of the ghetto theater formed about two months after more than 50,000 of the 70,000 residents had been liquidated. The theater's success, during its brief existence, demonstrated its importance to community morale. While Mr. Sobol uses the troupe for cabaret-style musical numbers, the tragedy itself embraces a variety of related developments. These inevitably involve Kittel (Stephen McHattie), the Nazi commandant whose bully-boy tactics involve a streak of whimsical humor.

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Kittel periodically demands that the performers entertain him with song and dance. One of the most grotesque command performances occurs when, after surprising the troupe by bleating out a chorus of ``Swanee'' on his saxophone, he blacks their faces as he forces them through a rendition of the early Gershwin classic. The recurrent sidebar diversions include a banquet that turns into an orgy and the terrifying climax in which the Vilna mummers, in oversize Nazi uniforms, taunt their oppressors.

Such interludes apart, ``Ghetto'' concerns the mechanisms for survival and governance within the confined Jewish quarter. As head of the Nazi-created ghetto police, Jacob Gens (George Hearn) insists that Jewish survival, to whatever extent possible, depends on seizing and exploiting even the slightest opportunities presented by the unequal power relationship. No one is better at survival opportunism than the unctuous Weiskopf (Donal Donnelly), whose offer to clean and repair bloodstained Nazi uniforms turns into a thriving enterprise.

Other principals in the Srulik's miscellany of real and imagined events include Hayyah (Helen Schneider), the fetching singer and secret ghetto activist who catches Kittel's fancy; Hermann Kruk (Jarlath Conroy), a left-wing cultural leader and librarian; and by no means least, Srulik's irrepressible Dummy (Gordon Joseph Weiss), a mouthpiece for the most audacious anti-Nazi gibes.

The performance staged by a Polish-born Israeli director, Gedalia Besser, is consistently forceful and articulate. Yet the details of the narrative aren't always easy to follow. The setting was designed by Adrian Vaux, with costumes by Edna Sobol and sometimes murky lighting by Kevin Rigdon.

Mr. Besser staged the premi`ere of ``Ghetto'' in 1984 at the Haifa Municipal Theatre, where he is now artistic director. The drama has been subsequently performed at festivals in West Germany and the United States. The play is currently being performed by the Royal National Theatre of Britain, which commissioned the David Lan version.

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