You know you're in for something unusual when instead of being given a program you're merely asked to take a penny from a cupful of coins at the theater door. Soldier, a remarkable one-man piece written and enacted by Jonathan Draxton and acutely directed by Kevin O'Rourke, places the audience not in rows but in chairs scattered through a featureless black-box space (at the downstairs theater at HERE through Dec. 22). Enter Heinrich Weiss, a charismatic and enigmatic young Nazi officer, addressing us first in German, then in accented but perfectly understandable English. Soon it's apparent that he's dead, so are we, and we're all waiting for the ferry across the River Styx.
Unlike us, Heinrich and the (unseen) men from his command lack coins for passage to the next world. The play takes shape as he tries to cajole us into giving him the necessary fare. To this end he recounts the story of his life as an adolescent Nazi enthusiast in the 1930s, a soldier in the Wehrmacht, a member of one of the notorious Einsatzgruppen (the death squads responsible for the mass shootings of Jews, Communists, Gypsies and others), and finally a murdered prisoner of war at Stalingrad. Heinrich's tales of lessons learned from his father, the departure of his English mother in the face of Hitler's ascendancy, wartime drunkenness and derring-do, and most especially his revelations of the recognizable human nature of his honest belief in the righteousness of the Nazi cause, are calculated to draw our sympathy; we never doubt that honesty, or even (in context) his good intentions. That's a tribute to the effectiveness of Draxton's wrenching text and commanding performance.
The concept of the show contributes to its effect as well. Sitting scattered about facing every which way, audience members see and must in a subtle way engage with one anothers' countenances and reactions as Heinrich addresses them personally – asking questions, using them as props, beseeching them for help. He forces us to understand that if we deny him a coin, it is not only in the knowledge that he participated willingly in the most dreadful slaughter in history, but also in the rich understanding of his essential humanity, the recognition that all of his feelings – devotion to his men, respect and love for his father, youthful high spirits, loyalty, even flights of poetic fancy – are in some essential way no different from our own.