Once in a while a glimpse of something special comes through in a theatrical event. And Voices of the Children: The World of Brundibar is special. This is community theater as it should be: beautifully mounted, intelligent, moving and a little raw around the edges. Because the play is about the Holocaust, the last thing you want is the insensitive Broadway approach to human misery. Voices moves the imagination, nourishes the eye and informs the mind without exploiting its tragic subject.
This first play by Denver Post TV columnist Joanne Ostrow does have some structural problems and once or twice assumes an unnecessarily didactic tone. Some of Ostrow's transitions are weak, and she has a problem now and then developing dramatic tension. But though the play needs some work, it's a very ambitious project that stirs conscience and memory in all the right places. The show's production values are unusually strong despite the poor acoustics at the Shwayder, and the narrative is so important that it carries the viewer along on its own power.
As the true story opens, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, an artist who studied at the Bauhaus, informs us that she has been taken to Terezin, a kind of show camp where the Nazis paraded prisoners in front of international human-rights activists for propaganda purposes--see how well the Jews are treated? People are and were so gullible that they actually believed the Nazis were nurturing these innocent people. Among the inmates were many brilliant Jewish artists temporarily incarcerated before shipment to labor or death camps. And then there were the children: 15,000 of them passed through Terezin, without their kin, without hope, without comfort.
Bored, frightened and missing their families, the children gather around Friedl, who sits in the yard drawing. Frightened for her life, humiliated and alone, the artist is at first coldly distant. But as the children show interest in drawing, she gradually shares her precious art supplies with them. Under the guidance of her strong, rebellious spirit, the children draw or write poetry, asserting their intelligence, their longing for beauty, their sorrows and their fears.
Also incarcerated at the way station is the famous composer Hans Krasa, who in happier times had written a sweet children's opera called Brundibar. He teaches the children to sing and to perform the charming music, accompanied by the camp orchestra. (The opera was actually performed more than fifty times, the cast changing after each performance as children were sent off to be murdered and new ones arrived to take their places.)
Meanwhile, a young couple engaged just before their imprisonment decide to marry. They celebrate two weeks of marriage before the young professor is sent off to his death. His wife, Vera Sommerova, Friedl's roommate and friend, is one of the few to survive the labor camps.
Deborah Persoff gives a stirring performance as Friedl, equipping her perfectly with the intelligence and arrogance of a great painter and the tender yet firm leadership of a born teacher. Terry Burnsed re-creates two wonderful intellectuals--the grieving, dignified Hans Krasa and the loving young professor, Valtr Eisinger. Burnsed makes Hans such an interesting, complicated man that you wish writer Ostrow had developed the camaraderie between Friedl and Hans a little more.
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The lovely Meredith Davis, who did such a charming job with Hero in last season's Compass Theatre production of Much Ado About Nothing, sparkles here as Vera--irrepressible, kind and buoyant with life. But it's the children who steal the spotlight. The young members of this large amateur cast focus in on character like professionals, each assuming a distinct identity whether or not they have lines. When one little girl listens attentively to a boy reading a poem about missing his father, her face crumples as she sobs silently. No one could watch her without being likewise moved.
Throughout the piece, the camp musicians play music composed in Terezin, and the effect is sometimes devastating. But the most devastating moment of all comes at the very end when all the children are on stage or stationed on the stairways out in the arena. As the theater lights lower and the children's exquisite voices fill the air with a traditional song, they hold small lights like candles. When those candles go out, the whole history of horror comes home.