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Terezin

 

 

††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† By Ron Cohen

 

The foreboding set establishes the mood immediately. A grimy wall of grey stone broken by half-circle windows, looking out into impenetrable darkness, surrounds the playing area. Dotting the playing area are spikes of misshapen metal. Some of them look like long-dead trees.

 

The play Terezin, written and directed by Nicholas Tolkien, depicts the World War II horrors of the Nazi concentration camp established in the Czech town identified in German as Theresienstadt. While many thousands died there of sickness and maltreatment, it served mainly as a way station for prominent Jews Ė many of them artists and scholars Ė before they were shipped to the extermination camps in the East.

 

The place was a nightmare of perverse cruelty. While living conditions were miserable, the Jews were allowed to put on plays, concerts and other performances. At one point, fake well-kept buildings, as on a movie set, were constructed to deceive a visiting delegation from the International Red Cross. The fake buildings were also used in a propaganda film produced by the Nazis to purportedly show how well they were treating their Jewish prisoners.

 

 

 

 

Michael Leigh Cook, Natasa Petrovic and Sophia Davey in TEREZIN by Nicholas Tolkien at The Peter Jay Sharp Theatre. Photo by Carol Rossegg.

 

 

All this is portrayed to powerful, if blunt but appropriate effect. Through this documentation, Tolkien also weaves Ė less successfully Ė a plot centering on two girls: Violet, whose parents are murdered in a roundup of Jews, and Alexi, who persuades her parents to take Violet into the family as they enter Terezin.

 

Alexiís mother, Isabella, is a noted violinist, who dies of illness shortly afterwards. Alexi has inherited her talent, and it attracts the camp commandant Karl Rahm, a conflicted persona, whose love of music Ė and his thwarted desire to learn how to play the violin Ė wars with his deep Nazi indoctrination. Before Isabellaís death, we even see Rahm dreaming ecstatically of the life he could have with Isabella in the camp.

 

From this point on, the narrative grows increasingly complex and diffuse. There are some fairy tale-like episodes, which may be homages to the children of Terezin, whose poems and artwork were collected in the celebrated book I Never Saw Another Butterfly, but they seem disconnected to the main thrust of the story.

 

Also and most importantly, we meet Eric, who is an architect and Rahmís son. Despite Ericís anti-Nazi sympathies, Rahm orders him to build the fake buildings for the camp. Both Eric's daughter and wife have disappeared, and when he spies Violet at the camp, he secretly whisks her off to his home, both for her protection and as a substitute for his lost child. Further twists arise when Eric learns of the fate of his wife and daughter and the long-held secrets of his own origin. All this is going on, as Alexi attempts to teach violin to Rahm in hopes that he will find the missing Violet for her.

 

As a director, Tolkien displays a fondness for expressionistic theater devices. When their characters play the violin, the actors represent it by moving their right hand in choreographic movement over a length of fabric stretched over their left arm. Fabric also becomes a weapon when itís used to picturesquely strangle several people. And when children are employed to dump the ashes of the dead into a river, itís fabric again, a long, long piece of it moving along the front of the stage, playing the river. Then, thereís the ghostly figure slithering across the stage as well. (The choreography is by Charlotte Bydwell.)

 

It certainly can be said that Tolkien does not trivialize the Holocaust, a criticism that is sometimes leveled at dramatizations of the period. There are passages that bruisingly signify the importance of telling and retelling, as a warning against the depth of cruelty that humankind is capable of. One such scene is when the young girls of the camp are forced to pretend to frolic in the swimming pool in the nude (the portraying actresses are clothed) to the point of hysteria, as part of the propaganda film. The power of such scenes is fortified by the deeply felt performances of Sasha K. Gordon as Violet and Natasa Petrovic as Alexi.

 

However, the thickness of the narrative Ė blurred further at times by directorial flourishes -- does dilute the visceral impact of the depicted terrors of Terezin. Also, there is an uneven quality to some of the portrayals in the 14-person cast: the unrelieved barking of the guards in uncertain German accents; the commandantís tendency to over-demonstrate dialogue with gesture in the performance of Michael Leigh Cook, who nevertheless at times delivers a compelling portrait of a troubled man pushed into brutality. There is also impressive emotionality in Skyler Gallunís depiction of Eric and Sam Gibbs and Sophia Davey as Alexiís parents.

Other assets are the music and eerie sound design of Katy Jarzebowski and the equally eerie lighting of Amanda Szabo on the aforementioned set of Anna Driftmier.

 

Adding to the prominence of the production, Nicholas Tolkien is the Jewish great-grandson of J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings. While Nicholas has directed film, this play, based in part on The Terezin Diary of Gonda Redlich (an inmate who died at Auschwitz), is his first. Despite its imperfections, it demonstrates enough passion and talent that would have hopefully made both Nicholasís Roman Catholic great-grandfather and Redlich proud.

 

Off-Broadway play

Playing at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater

416 West 42nd Street

212-279-4200

www.terezintheplay.com

Playing until July 2