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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
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
"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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