Art is a silent witness to the horrors of the Holocaust
To create a show involving the struggle to make moral choices is a daunting undertaking, the more so by using the vehicle of a musical. Signs of Life, the musical drama now playing at the Victory Gardens Theater through October 27, attempts to do that—and more. Where does one take a stand: make your art and risk certain death, or comply with your tormenters in the hopes of surviving?
Conceived by producer Virginia Spiegel Criste, whose grandparents spent their last years at the ghetto and labor camp, Theresienstadt, it is the story of struggle, possible survival and finding humanity in the brutal setting near Prague where many of Europe’s academic and artistic Jews were interned before being shipped off to the death camps of Auschwitz and other concentration camps.
The specific story tells of the period when Hitler ordered the “beautification” of the camp for an International Red Cross visit. The inmates were forced to be complicit in deceiving the inspectors, and the world, which had begun to learn of the Nazi plan for genocide, by cleaning up the grounds, planting flowers, and staging a theatrical showpiece for the visitors. Yet they feel compelled to practice their art truthfully, in defiance of their captors, secretly drawing and exposing reality, not the propaganda of “pretty pictures” the Nazis want.
The rich and stirring score, by Joel Derfner, with lyrics by Len Schiff, and musical direction by Mike Pettry is haunting, at times reminiscent of Kurt Weill. Beautifully sung by the strong musical cast, the characters give voice to their feelings, confusions, and heartache. Particularly poignant is Berta’s song Home Again Soon (the superb Lara Filip), By Your Side (Matt Edmonds, the poet/philosopher Simon in love with pretty 17 year old Lorelei (Megan Long). The harmony of the final ensemble – Find a Way to Live - is gorgeous, powerful and riveting. However, Officer Heindel's solo, Good, is tasteless, offensive, and completely inappropriate. It should be cut from the show--fast.
Directed by Lisa Portes, the seven disparate characters, including Lorelei’s younger adored brother Wolfie (Brennan Dougherty) their uncle Jacob (Michael Joseph Mitchell, an art gallery owner), the theater director Kurt (Jason Collins), and Jonas (Nathan Cooper), the young artist who insists on drawing the truth of the camp and is the first to fall to the Nazi’s brutality, have created a cohesive community, mostly through the blending of their voices.
Long gives a heartfelt, honest performance, as do Mitchell and Edmonds. Initially over the top in his portrayal of the director/actor Kurt, Jason Collins’ deeply felt performance grows on you and his talent becomes more apparent as he confronts his moral choice.
The 13 year old Dougherty portrayed Wolfie this summer in Prague at the International Psychoanalytical Association’s (IPA) conference on confronting trauma through art and music. The IPA believes strongly in using the arts to address repressed emotions and releasing memories. Feeling the story but not being overcome by the trauma can be therapeutic. The IPA believed this was a powerful show.
The bleak, starkly cold set, by Brian Sidney Bembridge, built to the actual dimensions of the actual Attic Theater in the camp evokes the sterile prison-like confines of the ghetto/work camp of Theresienstadt outside of Prague. Tall, angled wooden slats form a backdrop for the evil that is played out, camouflaged for the Red Cross visit on June 23, 1944 to be a “model city for Jews”. More wood-slatted rolling doors reminded me of the sliding doors of the cattle cars clanking shut as they transported their thousands of victims to the gas chambers. And much like the surviving artwork needs no words to tell the story, neither do these doors. The visual is telling.
The book, by Peter Ullian, tries to tackle several themes, with mixed results: brutality and evil; survival under extreme conditions; truth, honesty and dignity versus compromise and life. The show has flaws, with dialogue that sounds as though written for a young student, rather than an adult audience. There seems to be a bit of 'teaching' going on. Maybe that's the problem: who is the intended audience? While the two officers, Commandant Rahm (James Rank) and the more brutal and sadistic Officer Heindel (Doug Pawlik) are drawn on the real Nazi officers at the camp, they don’t serve the best interests of the story.
How does one “tell the truth” through art—about the deprivations, horrors and terror and still survive? How does one “survive at any price”, as Lorelei tells Heindel, “I will do anything” to protect her loving young brother Wolfie, and still retain one’s dignity and moral compass? If telling the truth, through realistic sketches rather than beautified renderings of the camp, will let the wider world know what is happening in the camps, yet result in death, is it worth it? The dilemma is painful, confusing. This is not light-hearted musical fare.
Clearly this has been a 13 year labor of love for Criste, who did deep research on Theresienstadt before commissioning her creative team. She then had them go and experience the camp, do their own work, which included interviewing local survivors. Then, armed with her facts, lots of stories and information, and documents, the team was given free rein to create a work.
Knowing that we are within a decade of losing all survivors with first hand knowledge and testimony of the Holocaust Criste believes we are coming into a new era of communication, that the younger generation will not be able to connect through words alone but will need the power of “emotionality” in order to identify, not only with what happened in that not-too-distant past, but also to comprehend what is happening in the world today, where the worst situations come from highly emotional political stances. To "be in the moment", to experience the tale through music may enable one to to attach and connect.
The victims of the camps were caught in their own trap, doing their own thing, and just trying to live moment by moment, day by day, plagued by two archetypes: the bureaucrat who committed evil by the sin of omission who turned away or allowed horrors to happen, and the ardent follower of Hitler, caught up in the emotional beliefs of Nazi (read Superman) ideology. Criste feels that perhaps telling the story through the vehicle of art and music is a little ahead of the curve.
The art conservator Heather Becker has said, “Art impacts life…objects carry messages and history—the art is a witness to history… Art provides a level of concentration where your brain goes to another place.” Perhaps for the inmates there was some small measure of solace when they were making their art, whether it was music, theatre or drawing and not having to think about what was happening.
Surely the artwork that survived, on display in the theatre’s lobby, is silent testimony to that time and bears witness to a horrific chapter in our lives. Much like the Holocaust museums in Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Los Angeles, words are not really needed; the visuals say it all.
Through Oct. 27, at
2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
Tickets: $45-$65. Discounted tiickets are available: seniors ($25), students ($20), survivors ($20).
Photos: Courtesy of Victory Gardens Theater