Russ Hunt's Reviews

The Emperor of Atlantis
The Terezin Studio Project

Centre Communautaire Ste.-Anne
November 1998

Somehow, here at the end of the millennium, we've come to expect that theatre will be entertainment, that it won't be about much -- and perhaps that it shouldn't be. We expect Cats, or No Sex, Please, We're British. Even when we produce, and attend, works with agendas and axes to grind, like Brendan Behan's or Bertolt Brecht's plays, we expect them, if they move or amuse us, to do it on a personal level, without bugging us about larger social and moral issues.

We tend to think of theatre that's "about something," that wants to change our minds and our souls, as sort of old fashioned, lacking in proper postmodern irony and sophistication.

We've also come to expect the arts to stand on their own. Art that insists on our knowing the circumstances of its production, on our caring about just when and under what odds it was produced, always feels as though it were doing some special pleading, or cheating, asking for our good will because the creator was working under such handicaps.

But the whole experience offered Monday night at the Centre Communautaire Ste.-Anne in Fredericton by the Terezin Studio Project -- the production of The Emperor of Atlantis and the display of art from the Theresienstadt concentration camp that accompanies it, and the way the company offers us their work -- presents a striking challenge to such ways of thinking and reacting.

I have to confess that ordinarily when someone gets up to introduce a theatrical production, and perhaps thank us for attending, I feel uncomfortable. It seems embarrassing and awkward, an intervention in the clean, aesthetically distanced and ceremonial relation between theatre and audience.

Monday night, however, when Tom Kuttner got up to explain the role of the Atlantic Human Rights Centre and the Friends of Bernie Vigod in bringing the production to Fredericton, I didn't feel that. And I felt it even less when, before the house lights went down, Georg Tintner, the conductor, turned to face the audience and explained to us how the opera was written by Viktor Ullman and Petr Kien, prisoners in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. He noted its references to Hitler and the paradox of Death going on strike because "the emperor" (Hitler) was overworking him, and he told us how it all came out of the experience of the grotesque parody of a "model concentration camp" where, before the work was ever performed, its creators were carted off to Auschwitz and gassed, two weeks after the last rehearsal.

This is theatre which is unabashedly "about something," and what is particularly powerful is that the whole company -- the six actor-singers, the dancer, the musicians, and presumably the backstage folks as well -- are clearly and obviously telling us this story because they think it's an important one, because they want us to "get it," they want us to understand. They want us to understand something otherwise inexpressible -- perhaps about the resilience of human beings, perhaps about the fact that art is always produced under a sentence of death and in denial of the realities of suffering and injustice all around us.

Appropriately, then, as in a Brecht play, the storytelling is right up front: the production invites us to see all the workings, from Simon Fournier as "The Loudspeaker" introducing the characters and the story to the way Susan Dalton, "the dancer," bridges scenes by drifting on stage during a scene to begin the next by tying back the crude salmon-colored curtains, letting us see the Emperor in his seclusion complaining because the soldiers in his war seem to have some strange sickness, and aren't dying.

The story is presented swiftly and efficiently, in a series of what are almost tableaus. Death goes on strike, the Emperor discovers no one can die and eventually tries to make this a triumph ("Death has been defeated!" he cries, not realizing that, for example, once someone is mortally wounded, death is release: there are things much worse than death). Eventually, and perhaps improbably, the Emperor comes to his senses and decides to make a deal with Death; Death will go back to work -- but only if the Emperor dies first. Steven Horst, as the Emperor, has one of the most powerful moments of the opera, as he confronts, in an extended aria, his own death, and the idea of death.

The production values -- the tacky curtain, the rough-sawn platform on which the action takes place, and the cheap backdrop of the emperor's throne room revealed when the curtain is tied back -- are all those you might expect the denizens of a concentration camp (one full of artists, but nonetheless still a concentration camp) to come up with.

The music is absolutely appropriate. The orchestration is wonderful, with saxophone, banjo, and an electronic keyboard punctuating and "modernizing" the traditional strings, and adding now and again a whiff of Kurt Weill, a hint of Alban Berg, and rather more of the sort of music we associate with Berlin between the wars -- a kind of Cabaret of the concentration camp. Some of the music is utterly lovely, like the duet between Phoebe MacRae as the Girl and Blaine Hendsbee as the soldier who has just escaped the lures of Heidi Maegerlein, the Drummer Girl, celebrating the power of love even in the face of Death.

And some of the music will give you chills, like the fleeting parody of "Deutschland Ueber Alles," or the last, chilling chorus when the characters appear back on stage, lined up, out of costume and back in their concentration camp clothes, with the yellow Star of David on each chest, and sing the finale welcoming Death.

As much a part of the power of the evening as the opera itself -- part of the story we were all being told by the evening -- was the stunning display in the lobby of the art produced in the Theresienstadt camp by its children, most of whom died there, or in Auschwitz or other camps. Our experience of the art, like that of the opera -- even like the plaintive Viktor Ullman string quartet which began the evening -- was completely shaped by what we know about the circumstances under which it was produced.

Perhaps the simple pencil drawing of "Disgrace," for example (one figure pointing accusingly at another, turning toward us with an expression of uncomprehending terror and despair, drawn with three or four simple lines), wouldn't have seemed so overwhelming if we simply saw it on a wall in a gallery. Or the pictures of how "home" used to look and feel, or the pencil sketch of "Fear," might have seemed less resonant in a context where we hadn't all just seen one of the flowers of Theresienstadt produced, and thought about art under a sentence of death. (The pictures are available in a book called I Never Saw Another Butterfly, published in 1978. Check it out at your local library.)

And perhaps even the production of the opera itself, if it had been simply broadcast on the Saturday afternoon opera, or presented as part of a set of one-act operas in a commercial opera house, might have seemed less moving, less powerful, less resonant.

But I don't think that matters. Finally, when someone plucks you by the sleeve in the lobby or at a party, or on the street like the Ancient Mariner, and tells you a story intended to change the way you think and feel, and it does, you don't assess the telling. You say, "Thank you."

[Published in the Saint John Telegraph-Journal, 18 November 1998.]
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