The metamorphic cast of three flit between more narrators and characters than you might be able to name or count through inventive use of staging, props, simple costume changes, and varied accents. However, they personify each of them with such clarity and acuity that despite the quickfire transitions you remember each of their stories, even when by the play's design they're forced to act against themselves to tell the full tale. The overall result impresses. Ned Averill-Snell demonstrates the most versatility, sticking his head through a framed German flag to portray the chancellor who summons the Jews through Project Willkommen, then hunching beneath a long, heavy coat as a Holocaust survivor returning home. He also puts on a New England drawl as a Jewish-American dock worker and shakes a defiant fist while depicting a labor union leader protesting against Germans losing their jobs to the new arrivals. Each pair of characters sharply contrasts each other, but Averill-Snell plays them so well individually that you see beyond the base absurdity of fighting himself across separate scenes.
Derrick Phillips and Katrina Stevenson's strongest characters are the respective teenage Jew and German who fall in love amidst the political and cultural tumult ignited by the project. Phillips's boy is both sheepish and refreshingly eager during their dalliances. He stuffs his hands in his pockets and warbles his words in his insecure moments, then bounds forward and speeds up his lines when he's excited. Likewise, Stevenson's girl is charming without being coy as she begs to "get to the kissing already" and leans close to him while testing his German vocabulary. She seems to deliver her accent from the back of her throat, but she pitches her voice up enough to sound cute rather than garbled.
The play treads dark waters. We learn that a music teacher turned Averill-Snell's Holocaust survivor's family over to the Gestapo. While he recounts his childhood trauma to her as a slow form of torture in her ailing health, the toy piano he tinkers with provides a haunting soundtrack. We watch how unrest within and between the German labor front and the Jewish uprising led by Phillips and Stevenson's Israeli freedom fighters results in gunshots represented by a pounding drum, an unfortunate end for the young couple played by the same two actors, as well as a blow to the labor union's efforts. But Lebensraum also sparkles with comical moments that alleviate its headiness and posits that humor can be excavated from the depths as a means to cope. The Americans played by all three actors either scoot into or bump each other out of a TV screen's focus while being interviewed as Project Willkommen's first Jewish family. Averill-Snell argues with his sock-puppeted right hand, a fellow WWII survivor who cackles bitterly at the thought of them ever being welcomed by the people who massacred their kind.
Lebensraum runs till January 31 in Straz Center's Shimberg Playhouse. Showtimes on Thursdays through Saturdays are 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. A talkback hosted by the cast, director, and CAIR Florida follows the 24th's showing.