An Everlasting Horror Reenacted and Remembered as CRT Ends Season With 2 Holocaust Shows
FlaglerLive | May 2, 2014
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For all its genocidal grimness, the Holocaust intersects with art often enough that there’s much to choose from in terms of tone, style, and mediums, assuming certain bounds. but also within limits. “Nearing the Holocaust,” the novelist Martin Amis wrote, “a trespasser finds that his imagination is decently absenting itself, and reaches for documentation and techniques. The last thing he wants to do, once there, is make anything up.”
A few examples: Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel in which Jews are depicted as mice and Nazis as cats, Eli Wiesel’s pitch-black memoir “Night,” Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful,” or Quentin Tarantino’s stylish Jewish revenge fantasy, “Inglorious Basterds.”
While all these works and so many more evoke the quintessential evil perpetrated by Nazis, perhaps the stage, with its flesh-and-blood immediacy confronting the senses, is the most visceral artistic medium where modern audiences can engage the Holocaust. That’s the thinking behind the Palm Coast City Repertory Theatre’s decision to produce two distinct Holocaust-related one-act shows as the company’s final third-season offering, opening April 25. The shows coincide with Holocaust Remembrance Month.
The first of the two performances is “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” originally written by Charlotte Raspanti. The episodic play documents the real-life survival saga of Raja Englanderova (played by Caitlin Eriser), a child survivor of the Theresienstadt camp (in what’s today the Czech Republic). Primarily viewed through her eyes, the story revolves around the ensnared children who use art as a survival tool. The title is also a reference to a collection of art and poetry collected in the camp.
City Rep board member Evelyn Lynham plays a Jewish teacher in the camp, Irena. Irena is responsible for bringing art to the children: music, dance, and poetry. She focuses on drawing and painting. “That was her main way of helping them release all of their happiness, all of their sadness, and their memories, all through paintings and drawings,” Lynham says. The real life Irena buried all of the art so it could be discovered later, before she perished in the camp herself.
The role art took in the children’s blighted is summed up in a line meaningful to Lynham: “Stop living for tomorrow and keep alive today.”
Lynham works for the Department of Children and Families as a system of care coordinator. Her job requires her to impart the message to troubled children and parents that “yes, there may be a lot of tragedy in your life, and there is some sad stuff that happens, but you need to learn every day to live for that moment—every moment in your life is still very special—and learn.”
Even when taking the breadth of modern-day poverty, child neglect and abuse into account, there is no comparison–and none should be made–between the mass-murdering of children in the Holocaust and the maze of difficulties children may endure today, at times even at the hands of DCF. But a child’s experience is not informed by perspective, and the power to redeem is part of the inspiration behind Holocaust stories. Things are not always what they seem. That’s especially true in the case of Theresienstadt, also known as Terezin in the Czech tongue. The camp was notoriously used by Nazis to trick the rest of the world, particularly the Red Cross during a 1944 visit, into thinking that there was nothing heinous going on there. It was portrayed as a summer camp–the flip side of a fantasy in which children were forced to play their part.
John Sbordone, City Rep’s artistic director, hopes to have some of the real art of the children projected on a back screen of the theater.
The second show, “An Everlasting Name,” is a dramatic reading adapted from testimonies found in the Jewish liturgy service written by New York Rabbi Adam Fisher. It is woven “into a piece of theater that looks at the beginning, middle, and end of that horrifying experience,” says Sbordone, City Repertory Theatre’s artistic director. The play achieves these aims through the words of the survivors, through dance, sound, and poems from a collection of American poems on the Holocaust called “Blood to Remember.”
Sbordone secured Fisher’s presence at the April 27 performance, following which Fischer will give a talk.
This is a harder process of adaptation than normal. “It’s always difficult dealing with this material,” Sbordone says. “This material is heart-rending.” The actors speak the real words of survivors, non-survivors and also liberators. It is reenactment and remembrance.
One actor is Tim Thomas, a retired Episcopal priest from South Florida. Thomas hadn’t done any formal acting for many years before he moved to Palm Coast, though he doesn’t see it that way. “Sunday morning is theater,” he says. “I don’t care what your denomination is. Liturgy is theater, so for me I was doing several shows a week.”
Thomas had done “It’s A Wonderful Life,” with City Rep assistant director Diane Ellertsen, about a couple of years ago, but hadn’t had a casting call since. It wasn’t until some confusion over a pizza order from Mezzaluna, where Ellertsen works, that he was able to land the part. Mezzaluna told him he was too far away for delivery—“I’m not,”—so he called up and happened to get Ellertsen on the phone. The conversation was the catalyst for ultimately landing him this Holocaust role.
“This is not a pleasant production,” he says. “It aint ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ by any means. But I think of it as a pretty absolute moral obligation to remember to continue to call attention.”
Michelina Wingerter is the improv dancer. She’s danced at Hollingsworth Gallery openings a number of times, she says. Because “An Everlasting Name,” is a reading, Sbordone thought Wingerter’s movement would be a valuable added element.
“Because it’s a dramatic reading,” Wingerter said, “you can only get so much from people from sitting and remembering stories and giving emotion through their voice, so I’m kind of just another vessel for motion.
“Sometimes, when you see someone move, you go, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly how I feel. It’s almost like that physical exertion where people get angry and they punch things or when they get happy and they hug and things like that. It’s the physical connection of the heaviness of it,” Wingerter says. Because she’s doing improv, there’s no telling when she’ll move and when she won’t on any of the nights.
Both shows will heavily rely on the integration of light, darkness, and sound, for effect, and a little more predictability on the incorporation of Itzhak Perlman, Klezmer music—the musical tradition of Ashkenazi Jews—and Nazi marches in the background.
Eli Wiesel, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, recalled a boy’s question to his father on learning of the Holocaust: “‘Can this be true?’ This is the twentieth century, not the Middle Ages. Who would allow such crimes to be committed? How could the world remain silent? And now the boy is turning to me: ‘Tell me,’ he asks. ‘What have you done with my future? What have you done with your life?’ And I tell him that I have tried. That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.”
It is on that same note, with that same purpose, that City Repertory Theatre closes its third season with “”Shoah: A Time to Remember.”
“Shoah: A Time to Remember,” will be staged Friday and Saturday, April 25, 26 and May 2 and, 3, at 7:30 p.m, and Sunday, May 4 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for students. The Sunday, April 27 performance at 2 p.m. is priced at $25, which includes a selection of “Taste of the Middle East” foods and a post-show discussion with Adam Fisher. Buy tickets at the box office or order them easily online here.