Review: 'Not a Celebration, But an Evening of Entertainment': "Cabaret in Captivity: Songs and Sketches from Terezin"

Cabaret in Captivity: Songs and Sketches from Terezin

Conceived by Edward Einhorn

Developed and directed by Edward Einhorn and Jenny Lee Mitchell

Musical direction, arrangements, and piano by Maria Dessena

Presented by Untitled Theater Company No. 61 at different venues monthly

January 28-April 16, 2023 (also available on demand)

Photo courtesy of Untitled Theater Company No. 61
Many of those well-versed in 20th century history – even on this marking of Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27 – may not know the place name Terezin or have heard of the Theresienstadt ghetto. Established by the Nazis in November 1941 in German-occupied Czechia, this camp was – and in the contemporary imagination, remains – a contradiction: a place of great suffering and starvation; a way-station or transit point connecting the Jews of Europe to death in Auschwitz. And yet, this was a model camp – a camp good enough to convince the Red Cross that conditions in Europe’s concentration camps were just fine. It was a place of great artistic production and expression; the interned wrote, composed, and performed in the camp, living under conditions that were better than those of other camps, if only temporarily so. If exhaustion didn’t take its toll at Terezin, most prisoners would go on to face brutality, starvation and, ultimately, gas in the east.

And yet: a creative life was lived, and we have the artifacts. Lisa Peschel’s pathbreaking work, Performing Captivity, Performing Escape: Cabarets and Plays from the Terezin/Theresienstadt Ghetto (2014) provides much of the source material for Untitled Theater Company 61’s night of song and sketch, Cabaret in Captivity.

From this rich and daunting collection of works, Edward Einhorn and Jenny Lee Mitchell have developed and directed an evening of cabaret, a collection of nineteen songs and sketches delivered with haunting exuberance. In its tenth year, Cabaret in Captivity seamlessly blends sketch with song and humor with sorrow as the evening moves between modes and entertainments, poems and song, a smile and a tear.

Cabaret’s songs and sketches are performed in a mix of languages (German, Czech, English), and the effect is transportive, seamlessly conveying Terezin’s cosmopolitan vernacular. This communicative mélange was beautifully underscored by the performance space used for the night of the January 28th performance – a living room in a brownstone on the entirely fitting Upper West Side of Manhattan. We sat, audience members and players, side by side, each of us there in the salon, connected seemingly across epoch, crisis, and tongue for a night of convivium, made all the more intimate due to the proximity of the sole musician, Maria Dessena. To share the space with her piano, ensconced in the corner of the living room, moved the role of audience member to something more enmeshed, like a co-celebrant – an effect made all the more pronounced in moments like when Seth Gilman arose from a seat amidst the audience to perform the baleful “My Suitcase and Me.”

The production is beautifully acted. Things open with the subversive and darkly humorous “Civilisace” from the play The Bedridden Prince. The gallows wit herein forms the bedrock of the evening and serves as an index to the absurdity of producing art under the conditions of Terezin. Throughout the evening, the humor bites, as it should. A dark resistance underpins the Yiddish banter – schtick that joyously makes grim puns of phrase pairings like “Faust” and “fist” and “Goethe” and “ghetto” under the winkingly adept straight man/wise guy pairing of Craig Anderson and Alyson Leigh Rosenfeld.

Things get darker still as the subject matter devolves to the deeply unpleasant (to say the least) details of a camp “Fashion Show,” horrifyingly detailed via Jenny Lee Mitchell’s deft performative blend of matter-of-fact archness and world-weary dread. By the time the performance arrives at “Carousel Song” – with its cynical, cyclical structure speaking to the reality of life under Nazism and the absurdism of trying to live therein – the audience shares the knowing ironic wince with Mitchell and her equally, hauntingly mesmerizing counterparts, Rosenfeld and Katarina Vizina.

The production’s horror and reflective somberness reaches an unsullied crescendo in its penultimate number, but is quickly juxtaposed by the finale, “Terezin March,” which functions as a sort of coda to the opening number, or an index on what has transpired since. A march, sung by the ensemble and technically impossible within the universe of the performance, paradoxically marches on. As a final note of resistance – of voice from those who cannot be silenced – the production ends on a characteristically wry high note: a testimony to the potency of artistic production, and of live theatre in all its myriad forms, to outmaneuver and outlive fascism.

-Noah Simon Jampol

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