October 10, 2008
A fresh look at a familiar story
by Greg Boyle
Every Kansas City area child over eight years old should experience And Then They Came For Me. It’s as simple as that.
Running until Oct. 24 at the Coterie Theatre, this hour-long piece demands to be seen. The play tells a tale that cannot be repeated too often. It is a re-creation of the lives of two teenage Jews who survived the Holocaust. Yet it unfolds gently, with no violence onstage, and the subject is mentioned only once, briefly, in dialogue. And Then They Came For Me plays like a memoir, with interactions between friends, and the small moments between children and their parents.
And Then They Came For Me is subtitled, Remembering the World of Anne Frank. With such a title, parents might be afraid to take their young ones, thinking the show will be too intense, too sad, too gruesome. Besides, we’ve all seen many shows about the topic.
However, this show is different. It speaks to greater issues, but does it by remaining small. For certain, this show is aimed at teens, but like good children’s theatre, the piece abounds with material that parents and children both can relate to. Plenty of younger kids attended last Sunday’s matinee and not one of them squirmed or made a peep during the entire program.
The 30-plus year mission statement of The Coterie states that the theatre will strive to “open lines of communication between races, sexes, and generations.” The Coterie accomplishes that aim with verve and quiet style on this occasion. The play’s author, James Still, graduated from University of Kansas and has five Emmy nominations for his work in children’s television. The reason for his multiple honors becomes obvious. This work accomplishes a surprising number of things, and without fanfare.
The play uses a multi-media approach, with both live actors and videotapes of two people, Helmut Silverberg and Eva Schloss, who tell their tales of survival during the Nazi persecution of European Jews. Sometimes the actors relate to each other, sometimes the audience, and sometimes with the characters in the videotapes. Real-life Helmut and Eva tell their sixty year-old stories matter-of-factly, reducing the potentially overwhelming impact, making them palatable to a wide audience.
Rather than being a tale about the Holocaust, the play is about three teenagers who lived during the Holocaust. The third teen is Anne Frank, because the old man telling his story in the videos appears in Anne’s famous diary as the boy she had a crush on.
The importance of this show relates back to the mission statement of The Coterie in connecting generations. This play tells a tale of a time that belonged to people who are now great grandparents. However, today’s headlines out of Darfur, and before that Serbia, remind us that humanity still hasn’t learned the lessons of those times. A serious effort to teach our children the outcome of the extremism of the 1930s and ‘40s might help us and them avoid the next potential episode of ethnic cleansing. This era of history must not be allowed to devolve into fable and myth.
The actors make a fine go of the script, looking and behaving in historically appropriate ways. That isn’t always true of actors in historical plays. Cynthia Levin’s direction was simple and understated, as demanded by the script, and kept the actors in the present moment, away from melodrama.
Standouts were Angela Cristanello as Eva, who used her voice and body language to mature from a pampered, immature 13 year old, to a haggard survivor in the space of the hour; and Alex Haynes as the Hitler youth. Haynes’s character served an especially important role in the play. His character was the only one that performed it with a perfect German accent, which was a little confusing. However, Haynes gave us a deeply sympathetic portrayal of the magnetic appeal of being certain that you’re right, and knowing exactly what to do about it. James Still’s script allows every character to retain dignity, even when life circumstances dispute it.
More than anything, this play is about the future belonging to our children. The Nazis knew that killing young Jews would prevent the next generation from being born — the reason they were killed first. The Nazis took care to nurture German youth in their own monstrous way in an attempt to create a Thousand-Year Reich.
The brainwashing of the Hitler youth by the Nazi regime is an object lesson for all parents. We must inculcate a strong sense of morality and compassion into our children from the earliest years. Otherwise, someone else will impose their ideas, and we will lose our chance to influence their futures.
The Coterie Theatre in Crown Center was named one of the Five Best children’s theatres in America by Time magazine. And Then They Came For Me proves the point. Contact the Coterie box office at 816-474-6552 or go to www.coterietheatre.org. (Ask about Target Saturday matinee two-for-one prices.)
Greg Boyle can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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