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Flash Review 2, 1-22: 'Holocaust Stories'
Tales of Horror from Gabrielle Lansner

By Catey Ott
Copyright 2003 Catey Ott

NEW YORK -- Square tapestries, like patches of history, were woven together as a backdrop for Gabrielle Lansner's "Holocaust Stories," seen Saturday at the Duke on 42nd Street. This evening of three duets incorporated text, sound, and gesture in an attempt to relay the emotional and psychological drama of the Holocaust. The intense and powerful actors and Dean Taucher's simple set of chairs were lit with cold and stark white lights. These beacons, as designed by Jeff Croiter, highlighted the eyes of the actors, created silhouetted shadows and symbolized the blind devotion that Hitler depended upon. The three stories each reveal relationships of two people, in pre-war, war, and post-war times. The experience of ripped hearts and defaced identity was expressed clearly by Lansner and cast.

"The Jewish Wife," based on the Bertolt Brecht play and involving a German husband, Charles Tuthill, and his Jewish wife, Dee Pelletier, opened the performance and set the piercing and cold tone that remained throughout the evening. The piercing and extensive sound of breaking glass shot out from the darkness. Lights came up on the couple that sat, then walked and whispered yet looked forward instead of at each another. Lansner used rhythmic walking and spatial patterning to describe her characters' esteem and the dynamic tension between the two. As actors, the two served Brecht's text well. As movers, they embodied distinct movement qualities that brought interest and insight to their characters. Many of the literal gestures -- the Nazi salute, the silent scream, an open reaching hand, a pointed finger -- were introduced and recurred in the subsequent segments. Often within the three individual works, the already strong script made the emphatic physical gestures seem redundant or obvious.

Two of the many scenes of "The Jewish Wife," separated by blackouts, displayed an especially well integrated use of music, movement, and unspoken communication. One was a wedding scene, set back in time and to the joy of the couple's early love, a poignant juxtaposition to the ripping apart of this bond under Hitler. The other was a waltz which began as stiff-bodied walking, wound into a couple's dance and was then disrupted by a square walking pattern which occasionally admitted a polka step.

The theme of squares coursed through the evening quite brilliantly: Square tapestries, square pools of light, square chairs, and square walking patterns underlined the rigidity of the epoch. An effective square moment happened as the wife, Pelletier, peeped through an empty-backed square frame chair and revealed her need to leave her home in Germany.

"Address Unknown," a New York premiere with text adapted from Kressmann Taylor's novel of the same name, was set to a full-bodied sound design by Rob Gould. Two German friends are the focal point: Martin, who lives in Germany (floor spotlight square one), and his Jewish counter-part Max, who lives in the United States (square two). The chairs in square one were covered by a large white square sheet that later symbolizes a letter sent by Max (Darrill Rosen) to Martin (Tuthill). This symbol was delivered with smooth pedestrian motion by Rosen, an impressive and expressive mover. This section, the best abstracted movement section in the show, began with Rosen revealing his heart-felt sentiment with a rolling of his hands before his chest and then referenced the message of the letter he had just recited in monologue form: Tuthill received and rolled the message down his chest into a small crumple of a finger motion. He placed the gesture letter into a gesture pocket at his side. An impressive square symbol occurred to end the tale. The empty-back square chair stationed in square one was folded and removed from view at the moment Max realized Marin died because of the Jewish friendship connection discovered. Rosen and Tuthill are strong independent actors who interact richly together.

"Magda" was the most abstract piece of the three, partly due to a blend of texts from the Cynthia Ozick stories "Rosa" and "The Shawl." The glassy-eyed and stern, yet graceful Pelletier was joined by the poignant Paula McGonagle. Another strongly designed score set the landscape for this story's tapestry of horrific memories. Time is trapped for Aunt Rosa (Pelletier), who refuses to snap out of the terror she endlessly replays in her mind about Magda's death in the Holocaust, the assumption being that Magda was her daughter. A niece, Stella (McGonagle) patiently reaches out to Rosa, encouraging her to move on with her life, and steals Magda's shawl to end Rosa's obsessive-compulsive rituals. The story was implied and unfolded indirectly. This was a interesting shift in approaches for the evening, yet confusing because the previous stories were so blunt. Since horrors of the mind make little sense sometimes, the confusion of this abstract story may have been appropriate, but depended on the audience surrendering to the conceit.

The piece opened with a recitation of staggered poetic lines, repeated and punctuated by the two women while lying among scattered children's school chairs. The actors used stalks of fake flowers to frame and hide their faces as they spoke in this stylistic way. Some of these choices were a bit strange since there was no further development made later in the story. However, Lansner wisely used slow motion, crawling backwards, and silent crying faces to reveal the details of Magda's death. The evening's chair theme did remain strong and concluded the show. Stella reorganized the children's chairs, replacing the images of a youth of disarray with an image of simple order. Stella then begged the unwilling aunt to come out of the nightmare and pick up her life again.

Lansner strived and achieved quite a lot with her approach to blending the mediums of text, sound, movement, and acting into one world. Transitions and the balance of quality among the mediums are obvious challenges. Another question would be the necessity of so many layers to arrive at a vision. Considering Gabrielle Lansner set these challenges up for herself, she is successful at many of her attempts. The transitions between dance and text were brought in and out rather gracefully or eased with light changes. Depth and insight into characterization, weighted themes, innovative sound and direction, clever symbolism and props filled her evening -- quite a formula.

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