Thursday, June 29, 2017

36 (2017-2018): Review: TEREZIN (seen June 28, 2017)

“Never Again”

 According to scholar Alvin Goldfarb, at least 257 Holocaust-related dramas had been written by 1997. Others, of course, have been produced since then, just as every year seems to bring one or more Holocaust movies to the screen, such as the recent The Zookeeper’s Wife. Documentaries (many available in full or part on YouTube), historical studies, and other forms of recollection, both academic and artistic, abound. The latest example to arrive on a New York stage is Terezin, by Nicholas Tolkien, great-grandson of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings. Judging by this play, young Tolkien has a very long way to go before approaching his great-grandfather’s level. 

Sasha K. Gordon, Peter Angelinis. Photo: Carol Rosseg.
Terezin, perhaps better known by its German name of Theresienstadt, is a Czechoslovakian town whose two fortresses were converted by the Nazis in World War II into concentration camps for prisoners of war and, especially, Jews, the latter living in what the Germans called a “ghetto.” Terezin was noted for the large number of prominent Jewish artists, performers, and intellectuals living there.

Company of Terezin. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Regardless of its model camp status, Terezin’s Jews were mistreated, starved, tortured, and killed. A great many inhabitants, at least 15,000, were children. While 33,000 Jews died at Terezin, many more died at Auschwitz after being transported from Terezin, which was intended as a way station.   
Sasha K. Gordon, Natasa Petrovic, Sam Gibbs, Blake Lewis. Photo: Carol Rosegg. 
German propaganda, designed to fool inspectors from the visiting Red Cross, included a documentary film (the making of which is part of Tolkien’s play) showing the Jews living athletically, intellectually, and artistically active lives in this so-called “spa town”; a considerable part of the film shows a soccer match played in a large courtyard surrounded by a building several stories high with a series of arches on each upper level fronting exterior passageways. 
Sam Gibbs, Sophia Davey, Natasa Petrovic, Sasha K. Gordon. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
These seem to be the inspiration for the gray walls encompassing Terezin’s abstract set, designed by Anna Driftmier, where the multiple arches have been so reduced in scale they suggest not only mouse holes but rows of crematorium ovens. One is actually used for deceased characters to crawl in and out of. Driftmier’s set, which includes a thin curtain on a circular track that can hide or reveal as much of the space as needed, is filled with black, sculptural pieces resembling bare branches. The effect is a bleak, unattractive background for Tolkien’s clumsy, overwrought, melodrama about a small group of Nazis and their Jewish captives. 

Amanda Szabo's lighting does its ineffective best to create a haunting atmosphere, while the costumes of Marie Claire Brush and Belinda Hancock are more or less what you'd expect although seeing Nazi officers with their collars opened loosely seems inauthentic, no matter how uncomfortable the actors might be otherwise.
Company of Terezin. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Tolkien’s script is loosely based on The Terezin Diary of Gonda Redlich, a personal account of daily life at the camp kept by a young Jew who lived there for three years before being sent to Auschwitz, his hidden diary not being found until 1967. The playwright manages to squeeze in many of the significant facts about life in the camp but, instead of focusing on Redlich’s own experiences—he’s merely a secondary character (Alex Escher)—he concocts a story about two girls, Violet (Sasha K. Gordon) and Alexi (Natasa Petrovic), the latter a gifted violinist, daughter of another violinist, Isabella (Sophia Davey), murdered by the Nazis. 
Company of Terezin. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Using a combination of realistic and surrealistic methods (like multiple shadow effects or the manipulation of a sheet of fabric draped over an arm to suggest playing a violin), Tolkien, who also directed, tries to create a semi-phantasmagoric expression of the horrific experiences endured by the girls and their acquaintances. Very little rings true, however, in the writing, staging, or performances. The Nazis, particularly the two chief ones—Commandant Karl Rahm (Michael Leigh Cook, the most polished actor) and Udo Krimmel (Blake Lewis)—are the sociopathic stereotypes we’ve seen in countless movies; I wish I’d counted how many times a Luger was whipped out and pointed as a way to settle a dispute.
Michael Leigh Cook, Natasa Petrovic, Sophia Davey. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The rambling, suspense-challenged plot, filled with superficial characters and unpersuasive developments, fails to dig deeper than its litany of familiar Nazi cruelties.  One of its central premises is that Rahm’s son, Erik (Skyler Gallun), the camp architect, is actually a Jew Rahm raised after his “Jew bitch” mother abandoned him, and that Rahm—in a revelatory speech that sounds like something lifted from a 19th-century melodrama—thinks little of murdering him should the need arise. Equally preposterous is the other chief plot line, which holds that, after Violet goes missing, Rahm will tell Alexi of her whereabouts if she teaches him to play the violin like a master in one week. Act Two, in particular, is a pileup of dramaturgy that’s gone off the rails.
Natasa Petrovic, Alex Escher, Sasha K. Gordon. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The story of Terezin has been dramatized in at least half a dozen previous plays and musicals. One of them, The Tiny Mustache, which has received several workshops, may get a production down the line. One can only hope that, if it does, it’s a lot better than Nicholas Tolkien’s muddled version of what transpired.
Sasha K. Gordon. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Playwrights Horizons/Peter Jay Sharp Theatre
416 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through July 2