Underground Railway Theater is affording a new generation of theatergoers an opportunity to learn about the Holocaust with two extraordinary, achingly beautiful theater pieces. Director Scott Edmiston’s lovely, soul rending productions speak volumes about man’s inhumanity to man while reasserting the human capacity for kindness and the overwhelming power of art.
BRUNDIBAR & BUT THE GIRAFFE (playing through April 6th) are companion pieces, written many generations apart. You may recall that Tony Kushner authored the children’s book, BRUNDIBAR with Maurice Sendak, based on the famous 1938 children’s opera presented at the Terezin concentration camp. It’s his stage adaptation of Hans Krasa’s opera, BRUNDIBAR, sung by dozens of local school children from around Boston, which URT is presenting along with his BUT THE GIRAFFE.
The giraffe play comes first in preparation for the opera: A little girl doesn’t want to leave her beloved stuffed giraffe behind as the family packs up their belongings. Mother explains that the toy won’t fit in the case unless they take out the oversized, sonorous score (every time the little girl opens it, she hears snatches of the opera). It’s of vital importance that the score not be lost. Who knows, the uncle says, it may be performed for future generations.
We, of course, know where they are going, even before we hear the railway announcement in the background but we keep our hearts beating and psyches in denial until we see them marching in circles, their cases over their heads, finally stopping in a tight group, staring at their barracks like Six Characters In Search of….God? Then the arch over their heads is lit and we’re slain, devastated, the elevator cables have snapped. We’re unable to move. It’s intermission.
(I glanced around and saw many a parent about to explain to their children…What? The unexplainable? I was immensely grateful I did not have that task.)
If you are unfamiliar with Terezin, URT has an exhibit in their lobby of artwork from the camp. The Nazis created this particular camp, full of art and music, to “deceive” the Swiss Red Cross into thinking all concentration camps were so accommodating. Buildings with false fronts, flower lined streets and strains of Beethoven and Mozart greeted the visitors. (Many scholars think the Swiss knew exactly what was happening and went along to save their country from being invaded.)
BRUNDIBAR’s composer, Hans Krasa and librettist, Adolf Hoffmeister began the opera about a group of resourceful children (who “save the day” and defeat a villain) as metaphor for the dictators about to take over Czechoslovakia. Before it could be staged in Prague, Krasa was arrested by the Nazis and sent to Terezin. The children in Terezin performed it fifty-five times (including a performance for the Red Cross) until they were all murdered.
The URT production is brimming with moving performances: Debra Wise as grandmother/the sparrow breaks your heart in THE GIRAFFE and embodies hope in BRUNDIBAR; Phil Berman as father/ the dog who bites the organ grinder, Brundibar, embodies heroism; Christie Lee Gibson as mother/the cat who scratches him (and sings Krasa’s soaring soprano arias) embodies beauty; Jeremiah Kissel as grandpa/ policeman brings humor to the piece; Nora Iammarino as the little girl with the giraffe brings innocence; John King as Brundibar makes the hair on your neck stand on end to think such evil can exist in such banal a form; Rebecca Klein (what a voice!) and Alec Shiman as the children (and the whole cast of local students) make us believe, for a short while anyway, that there is Good in the world.
Just across the river, Bridge Repertory Theater is staging the heck out of Michael John LaChiusa’s HELLO AGAIN (through March 29th), a musical which nudges the form fearlessly into “new music” territory. One might call the collection of musical scenes (based on Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde) pastiche except that when you think you hear the Andrews Sisters in the second scene, the nurses’ boogie-woogie morphs into a harmony Hans Werner Henze might have inspired.
Sondheim-esque dissonances mirror the sardonic tone of the book, where the coupling in each vignette is followed by one partner’s coupling with someone else…until at last it returns to the beginning when the first twosome meets again. Michael Bello’s direction is quite graphic, with brutal encounters upping the nasty ante in Schnitzler’s play…which is not to say Bello downplays the humor in the piece. Many of the scenes are very funny. And Bello invents wonderful scene changes so that the vignettes flow seamlessly into one another.
Bridge’s company is top notch, with exceptional performances from Aubin Wise as a trusting, then quite naughty nurse; from Sean Patrick Gibbons as a jaded soldier and a hilarious writer; from Jared Dixon as a self righteous, philandering husband, then a pompous senator; from Lauren Eicher as two sides of “the whore”; from Andrew Spatafora as the boy the nurse teaches a lesson to, then as the “young thing” looking for love; and from Sarah Talbot as the neglected wife looking for romance in all the wrong movie theaters.
LaChiusa’s through line is niftily pinned together with a brooch. Bello glues the scenes together with artistry, symmetry and plenty of chemistry.