Review by Willard Manus

The collision of man against power provides the dramatic power of iWITNESS, the play by Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol (adapted by director Barry Edelstein) now on tap at the Mark Taper Forum.

iWITNESS is based on the true story of Franz Jagerstatter, an Austrian farmer who refused to join the Nazi army in WW II. Not only did Franz refuse to wear the uniform of a "criminal" country, he would not kill on demand, reminding the authorities--including the Catholic priest serving as prison chaplain--of the Biblical injunction "Thou Shalt Not Kill."

Set in a cell on death row in a German military prison in 1943, the play jumps back and forth in time as it explores the working of Franz's mind and tests the depth of his courage and convictions. Sobol doesn't try to make Franz an unblemished hero; we learn that he abandoned his first great love, lived a dissolute life when young, had some unpleasant personal habits. Yet a hero he still is, a man who will not betray his principles and conscience, even when faced with death by guillotine.

Played robustly by Gareth Saxe, Franz somehow finds the strength to resist the threats of the German officers, lawyers and judges (impersonated, in double roles, by Seamus Dever, J B Blanc, Joan McMurtrey, Michael Rudko and James Joseph O'Neil), and the blandishments of his friends and family (O'Neill and Dever again, joined by Rebecca Lowman, Christina Burdette and Katrina Lenk), who beg him to save his neck by signing a letter of apology.

Franz will not compromise with evil, nor will he be swayed by those who (like the priest) remind him of the nightly Allied bombing raids that are killing so many innocent Germans. The blame for the war works both ways, they point out; besides, the end is in sight for Germany. Why not buy some time--and escape death-- by signing the letter?

Franz's WW II martyrdom is made contemporary and relevant by his cry, at the end of the night, for people to resist authority, dissent from becoming complicit in a war they find repugnant and wrong.

Edelstein has directed with a sure touch--and he has wisely cautioned the actors against speaking in typically cliched German accents. On the other hand, he has also leaned heavily on rear-projection video sequences (by Alice Brooks and Jan Hartley) which are unecessary and intrusive.

iWITNESS runs for two unbroken hours, but remains gripping and challenging throughout. Mark Taper Forum, 135 Grand Ave. Call (213) 628-2772