By Ron Cohen
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
the Peter Jay Sharp Theater
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