There awaits an almost impossible challenge for any artist, regardless of medium, who attempts to engage with the Holocaust. The sheer scale of the evil that spanned a continent during the 1930’s and 1940’s defies any attempt to capture it upon a single “canvas”. Documentary film-maker Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah was nine-hours long and built out of 350 hours of unedited footage, and it still was not enough. Until Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, narrative film-makers struggled to depict the vastness of this most horrible moment in human history. Simply put, the Holocaust creates a paradoxical conflict: the artistic need, on the one hand, to craft a powerful story and the human need, on the other hand, to throw light on every horror encountered, to honor as many victims as possible. It is a conflict that ultimately can harm the work. Theatre, which is a more intimate form of performance than the cinema, feels this struggle acutely.
Spielberg, however, showed the way. While it is impossible to depict the entirety of the Holocaust, art can shine a light on one small corner of it. The theatre can play an important role in this. Since the Holocaust is the ultimate crime, since anyone in an SS uniform becomes the ultimate evil, we feel a safe distance from it: it isn’t us, we couldn’t do that, they were inhuman monsters, almost aliens. The theatre’s job here is to make those who perpetuated the genocide of millions what they really were: not monsters but humans who did this terrible deed. In Hannah Arendt’s words, they did not choose to do evil but rather did not make a choice between good or evil. In short, but for circumstances, they are us.
Alas, Nicholas Tolkien, author and director of Terezin now playing at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, has fallen into the quagmire of so many who have preceded him. Set in the spa town of what was then Czechoslovakia, the play concerns the journey of two girls – Violet (Sasha K. Gordon) and Alexi (Natasa Petrovic) – as they try to survive the concentration camp set aside for distinguished and prominent Jewish individuals. Tolkien bites off more than he can chew. There are some attempts to employ magical realism a la Pan’s Labyrinth, but the production never really commits to this choice. Sometimes these elements work, and sometimes they do not (those just shot crawling off-stage is simply distracting). Too much time is given over to the family dysfunction of the commandant Karl Rahm (Michael Leigh Cook) and his son Eric (Skyler Gallun), which plays more like soap opera than tragedy. The dialogue varies between anachronistic (too many characters defy Rahm in 21st-century attitude and terminology) and ham-fisted (of the 1940’s film German stereotype variety). Sample dialogue has Person 1 saying, “I don’t believe you” to which Person 2 responds, “But you must believe me”, and that explanation suffices. The accent work crosses the spectrum from Blake Lewis’s spot-on Ralph Fiennes homage to others on stage who seem to have wandered on from the set of ‘Allo, ‘Allo. Again, all of these issues stem from the core problem of attempting to cram in too much material so that short-hand, indication, and stereotypes are needed to move us from Point A to Point B.
There is, however, a good play lying here, waiting to be born. The last 15 minutes of Act I are completely set apart from everything else around it. In order to please a Red Cross inspector, Rahm turns Terezin into a Potemkin Village with shops, theaters, schools, and playgrounds to give the impression that the Jews are treated well. The Nazis then build on their successful deception to utilize this fake town as a set for a propaganda film for how well Jews are treated by the Reich. In these moments, Tolkien uses the tools of the theatre to create a powerful indictment of the Holocaust. The efforts to create essentially works of art in the midst of a genocide to prove you are not engaging in genocide are unique, grotesque, and strangely human (at worst). These moments culminate in a wrenching monologue, an incredible piece of writing, where Petrovic as Alexi breaks the fourth wall and expresses how the flickering images of this film are all that remain of her. With these fifteen minutes, Tolkien deploys the tools of the theatre – from Brecht to the Theatre of the Absurd – to weave a more powerful, complicated, and nuanced indictment of the Holocaust than the rest of the play combined. Sometimes, we have to step back from our need to record everything and simply be artists that we are truly at our most effective. He would also be advised to enlist the services of an experienced director; another set of eyes would help enormously.
It may come across as churlish to criticize a play so loaded with good and worthy intentions. But intentions alone do not make good art. Tolkien has a good play waiting for him, a diamond in the rough. If he can do more with less, focus on the inspection and propaganda film, and find the universal in the specific, then he will be well on the road to creating a great play that will honor all the victims of Terezin. They will then be more than the flickering images on the screen.
For information and tickets, please follow this link: https://www.terezintheplay.com/the-play