The story of Terezín will always bear telling and retelling. Thousands of Holocaust victims passed through the Nazis’ “model camp,” also known as Theresienstadt, a place created to fool the Red Cross and the world into thinking the perpetrators of the Final Solution were treating their displaced Jews well.
Nicholas Tolkien’s new play Terezin presents this terrible chapter by focusing on a few characters on both sides. Two orphaned Jewish girls form such a close bond in the camp that they come to think of themselves as sisters. A conflicted commandante’s frustrated musical ambitions intersect with the fate of one of the girls, while his pacifist architect son Eric is drawn against his will into the nightmarish deception.
Sasha K. Gordon and Natasa Petrovic turn in sinewy performances as the two girls, Violet and Alexi, respectively. Michael Leigh Cook has powerful scenes as the commandante, and Blake Lewis is intensely real as a sadistically evil Nazi officer. Yet throughout the first act, the production careens between sequences of compelling emotion and awkwardly paced, ineffective scenes. The stylized delivery and dialogue and symbolic imagery, intermittently touching and powerful, are too often overwrought, and at times confusing. Despite the horrific story, powerful performances, and evocative music and sound by Katy Jarzebowski, there’s a hollowness to the production, as if it were a puppet show staged for children.
Certain scenes hit home. The girls identify goldfish in a bowl as the reincarnations of their murdered parents. Later they’re forced to frolic in a swimming pool for a propaganda film, after which Alexi delivers a raw, defiant j’accuse monologue. A visitation by the silent shade of Eric’s slain Jewish daughter (Morgan Reichberg) is staged with visceral power.
But dramatic staging isn’t enough to make us care about the commandante’s troubled conscience, his murderous relationship with Eric and his family, or Eric’s attempt to rescue Violet. The play is a worthwhile reminder of the deceptive lengths regimes will go to further their deadly purposes. Yet in the end, despite all the hustle and ado Tolkien and his cast and creative team marshall, these people’s lives, conflicts, and deaths escape too readily into the air, like dust in the footlights.
Terezin runs through July 2 at the Peter J. Sharp Theatre, NYC. For schedule and tickets please visit the play’s website.