A Strong Bridge
The Last Bridge, the new play by Wendy Kesselman and developed by her with George Street Playhouse artistic director David Saint, combines its dramatic structure with effective interludes of music, dance and choreographed movement to create a work of art that honors the humanity, determination and spirit of Holocaust survivors. Bridge also helps us to empathize with the shame and heartbreak that are part of the price they had to pay for their survival.
The play is billed as having been “inspired by the life of Barbara Ledermann Rodbell.” Her story came to the attention of Saint through its inclusion in a PBS documentary. Barbara (as Ms. Ledermann Rodbell is identified throughout the play), born in 1925, is the elder of two daughters of an artistic, cultured and successful family. When she is eight years old, the family moves from Berlin to Amsterdam after anti-Jewish laws prevent her proudly German father from making a living. She eventually enrolls in an Amsterdam school where she specializes in her great interest, ballet dancing. (Barbara and her sister Suzanne were friends of Margo and Anne Frank.)
Even after the Nazis invade Amsterdam and are ordering Jews to a “work camp” (actually the transit camp Westerbok), Barbara’s father urges the family to cooperate with official authority. However, Barbara has become close friends with politically aware youths who are passing as Christians and are active in the Zionist underground. They finally convince the 17 year old Barbara to leave her doomed family and use her blonde Aryan appearance to assume a false gentile identity in order to save her life. The bulk of The Last Bridge details events between 1942 and 1945 as Barbara and her first love, Manfred, his sister Marga, and another friend Leo strive to survive and save the lives of others. Barbara dances with a major Amsterdam ballet troupe during this period.
This modest 90 minute one act play was originally developed in a condensed version and performed by a George Street touring ensemble in local schools. That presentation required that the work include only four actors. Therefore, the actors playing Barbara’s friends play a number of subsidiary characters (mostly in the pre-1942 scenes of the play). Barbara narrates her scenes with her family, imitating the voices of family members while displaying them as the finger puppets which her mother had made for her.
These scenes get the play off to a slow start. It is not immediately apparent why some scenes are narrated and others acted out. It also tends to be annoying to see adult actors portray small children. The early scenes would likely work better if they were all told story theatre fashion by Barbara and her finger puppets. These scenes could then be shaped as a compelling prologue to the heart of the story which is that of Barbara, Manfred, Marga and Leo. Additional material depicting their real life efforts to save others would amplify the heart of the play.
Particularly effective is the graceful use of music, dance and movement. It never trivializes the story being told here. Using popular music of the era, as well as classical and folk music, playwright Kesselman, director Saint and choreographer Leah Kreutzer give the work a contemplative and artistic tone that increases our emotional involvement and induces us to reflect on the sadly significant events to which we are made witness.
Each of the cast of four is a relative newcomer. Monica West is outstanding in the central role of Barbara. She engagingly delivers the difficult early storytelling scenes, her dancing and dance movement are superb, and she displays large emotion convincingly without emoting. Michael Gillis projects strength and passion as Manfred. When Manfred is irrationally cruel to Barbara as he begins to crack under the pressure of their unbearable situation, Gillis is convincing despite the abruptness with which his lashing out occurs. As Marga and Leo, Heidi Armbruster and Patch Darragh provide solid support.
Riccardo Hernandez’ minimal set, basically a wall of black panels at the back of a large bare stage which open as needed, and Pat Collins’ exceptionally effective, evocative lighting combine to provide a handsome production. Theoni V. Aldredge’s costumes are reliably appropriate and the dress which Manfred presents to Barbara is the proper beauty it is meant to be.
The Last Bridge, which Barbara crosses when leaving her family in order to survive, is a metaphor for leaving behind the past, both its good and bad, and embarking on a new life. In this case, it ultimately refers to leaving behind the deep rooted anti-Semitism of Europe for the more enlightened and egalitarian embrace of America. Kesselman fully conveys this in a brief coda which can be instantly understood emotionally by all Americans, whatever our family histories. In a time of resurgent anti-Semitism on the European continent, this stirring and artful production is as relevant as tomorrow’s headlines.
The Last Bridge, a new play by Wendy Kesselman inspired by the life of Barbara Ledermann Rodbell. Directed by David Saint. Choreography by Leah Kreutzer. Cast: Monica West (Barbara)/ Michael Gillis (Manfred)/ Heidi Armbruster (Marga)/ Patch Darragh (Leo)
Performances through April 20, 2003: Tuesday-Saturday at 8P.M. Sunday at 7P.M. Saturday and Sunday at 2pm (exc. 4/5) Thursday 4/3 at 2P.M. George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ Order by phone by calling 732-246-7717 or on the web at www.georgestplayhouse.org