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"Terezin", by Nicholas Tolkien, at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater

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The Steinberg Theatre Group

(Terezin Website)

Written and Directed by Nicholas Tolkien
Choreography by Charlotte Bydwell

At the
Peter Jay Sharp Theater
416 West 42nd Street

Natasa Petrovic and Sasha K. Gordon

Michael Leigh Cook, Sophia Davey, Skyler Gallun
Peter Angelinas, Alex Escher, Sam Gibbs, Blake Lewis
Isabel Lodge, Charlie Manoukian, Topher Naylor
Morgan Reichberg, Ashley Siflinger

Scenic Design: Anna Driftmier
Costume Design: Marie Clare Brush/Belinda Hancock
Lighting/Projection Design: Amanda Szabo
Sound Design/Original Music: Katy Jarzebowski
Sound Technician: Jack T. Calk
Production Design: Janina Pedan
Stage Manager: Megan Webb
Dramaturge: Davina Moss
Fight Choreographer: Ellen Elisabeth Bryan
Press: Richard Kornberg & Associates

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
June 18, 2017 Matinee

See a Review of “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin”.

Terezín or Theresienstadt concentration camp, located in the former Czechoslovakia, was a ghetto and concentration camp built by the Gestapo in 1940. More than 150,000 Jews including 15,000 children, from Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Austria, were hauled in and imprisoned at Terezín. Not an extermination camp, ethnic prisoners died at Terezín from disease and density of crowding. About 88,000 of these forced inhabitants were deported to Auschwitz and other extermination camps, through the end of 1944. On May 2, 1945, the International Red Cross took over the camp, when World War II ended, and a week later the Soviet Army liberated this camp. Documentation found indicates that there were exactly 17, 247 survivors of Terezín, including some still in the remote death camps. (Read more about Terezín camp, sourced here.)

Playwright, filmmaker, and poet, Nicholas Tolkien, the Jewish great-grandson of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings, conducted extensive research from survivors of Theresienstadt camp, as well as from diary writings from the 1940’s camp inmates, such as Gonda Redlich. Without doubt, this is one of the most moving and poetic plays I’ve had the honor to experience in quite some time. The telling and depiction of the Terezín Red Cross visit and the making of the Nazi propaganda film were mesmerizing and eloquent. Tolkien’s debut play, Terezin, focuses on two Jewish girls, Violet (Sasha K. Gordon), whose mother and father are slain by the Gestapo on arrival, and Alexi (Natasa Petrovic), a violin prodigy. Alexi’s mother, Isabella (Sophia Davey), a professional violinist, is told she must teach the violin to a conflicted Nazi commandant, Karl Rahm (Michael Leigh Cook), who harbors a secret son, in a dark subplot. When Isabella dies, Alexi is forced to take her place as music teacher, or she will join the deportees.

You could hear a pin drop in the compact Sharp Theatre during this intense two-act play, and members of the audience included relatives of Holocaust survivors, as I overheard in the lobby. Alexi and Violet, along with their imprisoned friends, are forced to act, again for fear of deportation, in a Nazi propaganda film. They jump over and over into a makeshift swimming pool, designed, along with the entire faux-resort camp, by Rahm’s adopted, architect son, Eric (Skyler Gallun), who’s also a terror-filled victim in the scenario. This faux resort is supposed to fool the Red Cross into thinking that Jews voluntarily visit Terezín for sun and fun. As it was not an extermination camp, the makeshift resort buildings and children’s playground actually tricked the Red Cross officials, incredibly, I might add. There are gripping, graphic scenes of sadistic behavior and threats by an SS Platoon Leader (Blake Lewis), such as when he eats one of the girl’s pet goldfish and tosses the others to their death. Mr. Lewis and Mr. Cook certainly gave breakout performances today, and I look forward to seeing both actors again in future productions. Their nuanced gestures and body language, along with authentic Germanic accents, gave their two lead characters dramatic depth. Mr. Gallun, as well, acted with profound vulnerability and compassion. Ms. Gordon, Ms. Davey, and Ms. Petrovic were each outstanding in their significantly challenging roles.

Mr. Tolkien directs his own work, and his use of long beige scarves, attached to dead relatives, like Isabella, who returns to play the violin with Alexi, is evocative and mystical. The scarves appear and reappear metaphorically, like golden threads binding living and spiritual souls. Alexi, Isabella, and Karl Rahm use scarves, as well, in the violin passages, with imaginary instruments tucked under their chins. Strikingly, Rahm discovers he’s been learning a work by the Jewish composer, Mendelssohn, and he wreaks havoc on Alexi. No monologue (there are many, like diary inscriptions), dialogue, or action is rushed, except when a prisoner flees or hides, or a commando searches for a target victim. Charlotte Bydwell’s choreography is sensitive and understated. Katy Jarzebowski’s original music is intrinsic to each scene, magnetizing the moment. Amanda Szabo’s lighting evokes candles in Anna Driftmier’s tent-like hiding structures and red blood symbolism. The scenic imagery did include crematorium shapes, exactly as I remember them from a harrowing educational visit I made to Dachau in the early 1980’s, when on tour of Germany. The production design, by Janina Pedan and Ms. Driftmier, included wood and iron, mimicking materials found in the liberated camps.

Kudos to Nicholas Tolkien for bringing this monumental, straightforward, and poetic work to the stage. The world must never forget…

The Company of Tolkien's "Terezin"
Courtesy of Carol Rosegg

The Company of Tolkien's "Terezin"
Courtesy of Carol Rosegg

For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at