In Nancy Keystone's "Apollo -- Part 1: Lebensraum," Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, now the darling of the United States space program, gushes about how Americans will reach the moon. Punctuating his remarks are the memories of a ghost, a Hungarian Jew, who describes the underground factory in which he and 20,000 others died while building von Braun's Nazi missiles.
"Gray skeletons push and drag insane loads," he says of the slave labor. "The SS guards whip and club the terrified prisoners."
When von Braun proudly displays his model space ship, the ghost pours ashes out of the interior.
It's a pivotal scene in "Apollo," a multidisciplinary piece about how the U.S. military secretly brought 118 German scientists here to build Cold War-era missiles and our space program. The work joins a subgenre of plays that explore the Holocaust from the margins, such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning "I Am My Own Wife," which spotlights a German transvestite and opens June 14 at the Wadsworth Theatre.
The acclaimed, 42-year-old Keystone, who is Jewish, described her play in a conversation that ranged from matter-of-fact historical discussion to ironic laughter. The writer-director said she was drawn to the subject upon reading a 1990 article on the military operation that erased war crimes from the dossiers of scientists such as von Braun and Arthur Rudolph. While von Braun died a hero in 1977, the Office of Special Investigations called on Rudolph in 1984 and eventually deported him.
"What interested me about the story was not the Holocaust," Keystone said. "It was in what we did by bringing these people into the country and later by kicking them out. We whitewashed Rudolph's record when we decided he was important for national security. But when the game is over, can you really change the rules and is that justice?"
To begin creating the daunting project in 2001, the writer-director and her cast read FBI reports, Rudolph's interrogation transcripts and books on the slave laborers and their concentration camp, Mittelbau-Dora. Keystone also visited two of the surviving German scientists; although she had been warned they would not discuss Dora, they enhanced her "sense of how these people deluded themselves and how they cared only about rocketry."
As Keystone developed the play in seven six-week workshops, one challenge was describing the camp without tapping into viewers' "Holocaust fatigue."
"Depicting the [Shoah] is aesthetically very difficult," she said. "All our impulses go to the banal, the hackneyed. So we kept using different poetry and images and guards and beatings and it was completely ineffective."
A breakthrough occurred when the von Braun character stood on a rolling chalkboard and scribbled as the prisoner pushed him around the rehearsal room. In the play, the image "reminds us of the human cost of making these rockets, and raises questions about the price of progress," Keystone said. "When the people of the United States celebrated the fiery liftoff of Apollo 11 on July 16, 1969, few knew that ... came on the backs of thousands of innocent Holocaust victims."
Another reminder is the ghost himself (Richard Anthony Gallegos), who lurks onstage throughout much of the play. While the Latino Gallegos initially wanted to make his character highly emotive, Keystone said she wanted the prisoner to seem detached from his words; to retell the story, not relive it, as if he had achieved inner wisdom and peace.
"So the hardest part for me, as a human being, is relating his memories while feeling disconnected from them," Gallegos said.
Keystone, whose husband lost relatives in the Holocaust, isn't completely disconnected from those feelings, either. While her play empathizes with Rudolph as a pawn of our government -- which she acknowledges will be controversial -- it also forcefully condemns his actions in Germany.
Her anger at von Braun emerges in a blackly comic scene with Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney, who put von Braun on TV and hired him to help design Disneyland's Tomorrowland. In the satirical sequence, the oblivious Mickey declares of the slave factory, "A mine! Gee! Little men working underground. Heigh ho!"
"I have a lot of rage about how people like von Braun could be so self-serving and amoral," Keystone said of the scene. "And von Braun got away with it, unlike Rudolph." In the Disney scene, his loving concern for the astronauts contrasts with his utter disregard for the Dora prisoners, "Which is what makes me so crazy," she said.
Yet the director doesn't simply want to label the scientists "evil Nazis."
"If we do, we are letting ourselves and our government...off the hook, and we perpetuate the profound denial surrounding our own actions and our culpability in this affair," she said.
Keystone believes that culpability continues today: "We created Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, then turned the tables because of our self interest," she said. "My hope is that 'Apollo' provokes questions about how we can act responsibly, as individuals and as a society."
The play runs June 12 to July 3 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. For tickets and information, call (213) 628-2772.