Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
CTC opens a timely world premiere
CTC opens a timely world premiere
The Children's Theatre Company's commitment to Jeffrey Hatcher's moving new play, Korczak's Children, fairly pulses off the stage. Its poignant momentum informs the fine acting by a cast of 30, many of them accomplished children, in a full-on production that centers on a story all too topical in a time of war and hardening prejudices.
Hatcher based his play on the diaries left behind by Dr. Janusz Korczak, an enlightened Polish physician and author who promoted the rights of society's most vulnerable citizens, its children. Set during the Second World War in 1942 Warsaw, Korczak joins the doctor in his orphanage in the Jewish ghetto just days before the Germans ship the children and staff to the Treblinka extermination camp.
The play cuts from engaging in-scene dips into the daily life of the 171 orphans in their warehouse-like home to Dr. Korczak's narrations, taken from his diary. This form risks slowing the action of a play, but under Eric Simonson's sure-handed direction, Korczak moves seamlessly and powerfully towards its denouement.
Within the play, Hatcher introduces a recurring story that the doctor can never quite finish and a play within the play. The story, a favorite with the children, tells of Doctor Zee, whose magical machine can fill all the universe with waves of happiness, except for the restless spark of Planet Earth. At play's end, this hopeful story remains unsettlingly incomplete. The play that the children perform the night before they leave is Rabindranath Tagore's "The Post Office," a story about a dying boy restricted to his home and denied the joy of sunshine, wind and sky by an absolutist doctor. The child longs to enter life and believes that the king will send him a message through the post office opposite his window. When a message comes, it is a telling blank. Everyone has different interpretations of what "The Post Office" is about - some say it's a political drama about the Gestapo, others say it's about death, or a warning to flee before death beckons - but when the order comes to leave the orphanage, Dr. Korczak simply tells the children, "The message has come."
In an affecting performance, Clyde Lund fills the role of Korczak. He finds the doctor's warmth, wit, wisdom and his dedication to bringing respect and fairness to children, in part through a remarkable system where infractions are judged by children in a children's court. In spite of his humor and optimistic tone, Lund manages to reveal through body language Dr. Korczak's immense weariness in the face of overwhelming odds. When he is twice offered a chance to escape the ghetto before the removal to Treblinka, he rejects the opportunity. This man of integrity and dedication leads his orphan family to the trains for "a ride in the country."
True to Dr. Korczak's spirit, Lund leads an ensemble cast where children play roles as active as the adult roles, and they make up almost a third of the large cast. Director Simonson conjures from children as young as eight years old acting that defines each one as an individual.
Neil Patel's apt set defines a prison-like warehouse, and by play's end it becomes clear that in the eyes of the Nazis, the orphanage is simply that, a temporary storage space for unwanted goods that will be shipped to a final destination.
In this excellent production, Nancy Schertler's lighting design and Victor Zupanc's hauntingly lovely music add mood to the piece. Costume designer Karin Kopischke's period clothes convincingly suggest making do with hand-me-downs, but she could not quite resist dressing up the play-within-the play a touch too much to be realistic, considering the privations within the orphanage.
Although the subject of Korczak is dark and painful, Hatcher's play is packed with the humor and vigor of children living in an enclosed world that feels separated from the darkness lapping around it. Only when that world is breached by street sounds, members of the servile Jewish Council and by the Gestapo, does the darkness flood in.
Korczak's Children is a timely and significant play for children old enough to grapple with the consequences of war and deep-seated prejudice. Families might be wise to discuss the history of WW II before attending, and searching questions are bound to follow the production.
Korczak's Children March 21- April 19. Wednesdays through Saturdays 7:30 p.m. 2:00 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. 5:00 p.m. Sundays. $9 -$28. Children's Theatre Company, 2400, Third Avenue South, Minneapolis. Call: 612-874-0400. Online: www.childrenstheatre.org.