There are some rules in my book about current art about what I will enjoy, in generalizations. I tend to not be a fan of what I call the "angsty" musicals, because when done well, with great storytelling, they can be fantastic, but generally the productions fall into the angst. I don't like shows where the message is more important than the story, I would rather see a show that has a profound message, but if all I wanted was to watch a story and not get it, I could. I am getting tired of plays/movies about the Holocaust. I tend to dislike child actors before I like them. (The exception to this, of course, being Henry Thomas' audition for E.T. for the role of Elliot. That is officially the greatest example of acting of all time, and since seeing this video I have considered dropping from the profession because I will never, ever be this good in my lifetime. Ever)
Jokes aside, all I knew about "And a Child Shall Lead" before I walked into HERE Arts Center on thursday, October 25th, was that it was a play about a Jewish Concentration camp, and it featured almost entirely a cast of children. Needless to say I was a bit nervous, because it broke two of my rules. I mainly was going to see it because a good portion of the production team are my good friends, and my dear friend Ethan Itzkow (one of the two actors over the age of 20) was playing one of the main characters.
I had no need to be nervous at all. The play was absolutely stunning from start to finish. Laura Luc's direction is just short of miraculous. I may not be giving these amazingly talented kids enough credit, but it is hard work as a director to create a play which relies heavily on children for the dramatic weight of the show and the forwarding of the plot, and she got some amazing work out of this cast.
The play takes place in Terezín Concentration Camp during the nazi reign in Europe. It takes place in two barracks, one of all girls, and one of all boys. We are greeted by a game of Hide and Seek to start, and this sets the stage for what this beautiful play is really about. It's not about the inhumane treatment of humanity by the nazis, we've seen those plays, they are in heavy abundance. What this play is about, is how can a child grow up in that environment, how fast do they grow up, and are they forced into an adulthood before they are ever really children? That story, is new, it is riveting, and it is utterly, utterly heartbreaking. As we meet these boys and girls, we are given a glimpse of their previous lives, and of the new ones they've created for themselves, together. The heads of this strange little family, are Miroslav Weiss (played stunningly by my dear friend Ethan Itzkow), and Eva Hellerova (a spell-binding Lilly Wilton). They are 15, and 14 respectively, and while Eva is mainly concerned with the safety and well-being of her sister, Jana (the youngest character and member of the cast, Mia Sinclair Jenness), they both work to keep the other kids' minds free of troubling thoughts, and always in a world of the future, of make-believe, of something better. I should mention, by the way, that Ms. Sinclair Jenness' character was six, she didn't look a day above it, and her focus, engagement with the text, and ability to deliver a very large amount of lines was phenomenal. As the play progresses, Luc's direction masterfully staged these children into a variety of experiences the whole audience could relate to (the first awkward kiss between two young kids in love, a young girl forcing a boy to play house, creating skits with a sheet for a curtain. All of these things had people smiling fondly as the children on stage played their way through this horrific life they were forced to live.
The design of the show was perfect. From Aaron Porter's simple, yet profoundly evocative lighting, to Abby Steere's costumes which showed no hint of a contemporary period, and very effectively transported us back to WWII in Europe, to Alexander Woodward's minimalistic set consisting of rollable bunk beds, crates, benches, and the like. The best part about the set, to me, was a painted border on the floor signifying both the room they were in, but also used symbolically as a barrier to the outside world which the children could not reach and could not stop thinking about. I say with some pride, that the three designers previously listed are Ithaca College alums. The sound designer, Marisa J. Barnes, created a beautiful sound score to the show which told the story in more ways than one. From the sounds of trains, trucks, gun shots, and other horrors of the concentration camp, to a soft, haunting, and eerie tune played as though from a music box, which accompanied many of the softer moments of the show. That song came to signify so much to the children and to the show, and my hat is off to her for its use and design.
The best part about child actors is that they have no filter. Often, training programs talk about returning to the child-like state, because there we only have imagination. I find often with child actors, that lines and blocking actually serve to be filters, blocks to the perfect imagination, and there were many times where I felt the director's hand on the performance of the child, rather than watching a child be a child. This is unavoidable, but was still a frequent notice of mine.
None of those things, however, detracted from the show in my mind. The show existed in a wonderful bubble, a performance of real depth and weight, which moved me frequently, and affected me viscerally even more frequently. My favorite highlights included wonderful duets between Rebecca Kurnellas and Ryan Jones on the Violin and Recorder, respectively. There was a fantastic, innocent chemistry between these two young actors that I remember all too well, and laughed at retrospectively and lovingly. There were wonderful moments between Caroline Rosenblum and Evan Smolin, the two "outsiders" of the group. They were the two characters that found each other through mutual aloofness and an appreciation for drawing. Great work from these two. The show opened to a beautiful modern ballet performed by a cast member while removing her everyday clothing and changing into her Terezin outfit. I was shocked and surprised by how fantastic this was, and I have to give so much credit to whichever cast member danced it (unfortunately I was enthralled and forgot to check who it was), as well as to choreographer Raquel Wallace, an understudy in the show and another of the young performers. As I write this I have a suspicion that perhaps Raquel danced it herself, I really can't remember, and I am embarrassed to say so.
What was hardest for me about the show, was that much of what I loved about the show, and why it hit home for me was unintentional. There is so much about this show that is removed from the real event, and as noble as these performances were, and as wonderful as the production was, there was still an obvious disconnect from these people to their portrayed characters. The first is that these children and young adults have the freedom and privilege to do theatre for people. It is rare that a child has the opportunity to perform for an audience, as often their parents are unable to support their arts interest, or there simply aren't arts opportunities available to them. I couldn't help but wonder how fortunate we are as a culture that we have children who aren't living in the world of the play. This took me from the play, and far away into my mind. In the end, I found myself feeling blessed for the fact that our culture doesn't contain these specific atrocities anymore. The moment that continued to come back to me, and sums up all my thoughts on the matter, came early in the show when the children are putting on a skit for each other, and one plays the nazi leader of the Terezin Concentration Camp. As these children start doing "Heil Hitlers" in jest (a very very chilling thing to watch happen from younger actors) one of the girls accidentally broke character and showed her youth, her innocence, and most of all, the privilege our culture can afford a young one. As her hand came forward in the traditional "Heil Hitler" position, her hand naturally formed a perfect ballet hand, middle finger and thumb cocked carefully towards each other, and her arm crooked at the elbow ever so slightly. In that moment, she lost herself entirely in the scene, and the actress' body fell into muscle memory. For children in previous cultures, that arm signal meant power, oppression, fear, loathing, death, destruction. For this girl, that arm position was what happens at the barre before a beautiful combination.
Unfortunately the show's run has ended, and it is no longer available for being seen, but if this show ever pops up in your community, I urge you to see it. Michael Slade's writing is carefully constructed to be conversational enough to feel realistic, heightened enough to allow for thought and reflection, and poetic enough to give the brain grasping points of beauty amidst this world of chaos and death. Bravo to the entire production, and happy closing to them!
I find myself hilarious, and I use this blog to stroke my own ego. Thanks for indulging me.