By BRUCE BURGUN, Exclusive to the CCJN
Out of the ashes of war and atrocity often great art is made.
In the wake of the ruthless annexation of rival country Melos, Euripides shocked his Athenian audience with his ravaging portrayal of postwar refugees in “The Trojan Women.” Throughout his career, with his history and his tragedies, Shakespeare relentlessly hounded his audience of the terrors of civil war and the perils of revolution.
Our own era has witnessed the devastation of two world wars and the horrors of the Holocaust associated with World War II.
Antoni Cimolino, artistic director of the world-renowned Stratford Festival of Canada, dedicates his current season to “Discovery.” “I wanted to explore plays that especially examine discovery,” he wrote. “In these plays, characters learn surprising truths about the world around them or perhaps about themselves. In that eureka moment, their lives change forever. How do they deal with that change? At what cost comes knowledge?”
Two of the 13 productions running at the Stratford Festival this season rung especially true and scrutinized the dreadfulness as well as the joys of our 20th century nightmare: Rodgers and Hammersteins’ “The Sound of Music” and “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
At first glance these two icons of dramatic literature seem, other than subject matter, quite dissimilar. One is a legendary American musical filled with a multitude of highly memorable songs. The other an all-too disturbing account of eight decent, ordinary people forced to hide in a tiny attic from the Nazis simply because they are Jewish.
Upon further reflection, however, a great number of similarities between these two giants of theatre emerge. Both are based on real-life stories (although the tale of the singing von Trap family takes great liberties from the actual facts, but so too – to lesser extent does the first version of Anne’s diary). More to the point, both portray animated women – Maria von Trapp and Anne Frank – who in the face of dreadful realities tackle the world with spunk, passion, and an overwhelming love of life. It is the quicksilver vibrancy of these resilient, savvy women that leaves us with the blessed sensation that existence is good and to urge us to change the way things are.
As Steven Spielberg did with his astounding film “Schindler’s List,” director Jillian Keiley reinvents the portrayal of the Franks’ unfortunate journey to suite the mindsets of a new generation. And she does so with great skill and inventiveness. The original stage version was dramatized by veteran husband-and-wife screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (most famous for scripting “The Thin Man” crime capers and Frank Capra’s cheerfully immortal “It’s a Wonderful Life”).
Our impression of the Anne’s diary unalterably changed in 1989 when an unabridged version was published. Previously Otto Frank insisted on removing many of the candid entries to ensure its propriety for younger readers.
Enter American playwright Wendy Kesselman who, in her adaptation for the 1997 New York revival featuring Natalie Portman, includes much of the previously sanitized material – such as Anne’s harsh criticism of her mother and explicit accounts of her budding sexuality – and eliminates much of Goodrich and Hackett’s sentimentality.
To begin her groundbreaking interpretation, Keiley has each of the 17 performers – the cast includes a seven member chorus who provides moving a capella accompaniment throughout – stand downstage, introduce themselves, and then share personal story on how they relate to the drama’s narrative. One tells of her grandmother who survived the Stutthof concentration camp. Another shares about the struggles of being a father to two teenage girls the age of Anne and her sister, Margot. An actress relates how as a little girl worried about how she would hide her Jewish piano teacher – until she realized, being black, that the Nazis would come for her as well.
This introduction breaks the boundary between player and audience and invites us to similarly personalize the story. We can no longer view these characters as statistics. We must now recognize them as living people.
More innovations abound.
Instead of using voice-over passages from the diary during scene changes, the actors – of various ages, races, genders – take turns reading directly from the book – culminating in a breathtaking act when, at the end of the play, Otto Frank hands the book to an audience member.
Sara Farb is infectiously brilliant as Anne. She, like Stephanie Rothenberg who plays Maria in “The Sound of Music,” brings joy, love, and a life-embracing spirit into everyone’s lives.
Donna Feore’s direction of this final collaboration between Rodgers and Hammerstein is not as revolutionary as Keiley’s but nevertheless astounds and pleases. Witnessing the icy Captain von Trapp (Ben Carlson, a terrific mainstay actor at the festival), reclusive since the death of his wife, burst into song after seeing the miraculous transition Maria has accomplished with his children is awe-inspiring.
Both productions succeed gloriously in their noteworthy intentions: creating hard-hitting theatre that hands down these momentous pieces of the past to the next generation as the facts of history recede further and further by time.
The Stratford Festival of Canada – now in its 62nd season – continues to run in Stratford, Ontario with 13 productions in four different venue, run in rotating repertory from now through October. For more information click here.
(Editor’s note: Bruce Burgun, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, recently retired from the faculty of Indiana University, where he was an associate professor of acting and directing, receiving many honors and distinctions. He has now settled in New Orleans and writes theatre reviews for the New Orleans Advocate.)