BWW Reviews: A Night of Contradictions at Central Square Theatre's BRUNDIBAR & BUT THE GIRAFFE
There are few things that speak to the resilience and hopefulness of mankind more than the history of Brundibar, currently being performed at the Central Square Theatre. It is an opera for children (which is ambitious in itself), but it was created by Jewish artists and performed in the Terezin concentration camps, in spite of all of the horror and pain being inflicted. Tony Kushner, Pulitzer prize winning playwright, wrote a thirty minute play entitled But the Giraffe that acts as a prelude to Brundibar, telling the story of a family packing up their things before having to leave for the camps and a little girl who doesn't want to abandon her stuffed giraffe. In this ninety minute evening, both pieces were performed in succession.
Central Square Theatre is an incredibly versatile space; in fact, nothing I see there ever looks anything like the production before it. This particular production started in a little girl's room and, emphasized only by the actual dollhouse in the center of the rug, looked remarkably like a house for a doll. Designed by Jenna McFarland Lord, the set was wildly adaptable, switching quickly between a child's bedroom, a desolate and barren camp, a magical, fantasy village, and back again. I did not like that we could see the actors in full costume changing the set over during intermission, but I very much admired how easily and completely the locations varied. I was also quite excited by the show's costumes, designed by Leslie Held, specifically the character of Brundibar, who looked like a dark and twisted Willy Wonka.
My biggest critique is with the writing of the piece. The styles seemed a bit too disconnected from one play to the other, which is surprising to me, since Kushner wrote both the adaptation and Giraffe. But the main character of But the Giraffe sort of disappeared and didn't really play a part in Brundibar at all, there was little to no music in the first piece, and the stylized dialogue in the first play did not quite match up with the music of the second. Central Square did a great job with the text they were given, but I just found the piece to be quite odd.
There were some very moving performances, including John J. King as Brundibar, who had a beautiful voice and impressive stamina, Patrick Varner as Rudy, who was remarkably lovable even when simply conducting for the second half of the piece, and Rebecca Klein as Aninku, a young actress with a crystal clear voice and a understanding far beyond her years. The entire ensemble seemed to care a lot about the work they were performing, which helped the audience to care about the characters, even with silly lyrics and goofy puppets.
I think what made this piece challenging to get into was the complete contradiction between the show's intention and its context. The production is undoubtedly for children, with its simple language, bright colors, and positive ending; however, there was always an underlying sense of imminent danger and hopelessness. Lines like, "where will we go?" "where they tell us" or lyrics about dead fathers pervaded the happy story. [WARNING: SPOILER] The perfectly tied up ending of the fantasy land opera was ripped back to reality with sounds of sirens, children coughing in their camp bunks, and an evil warning that there will always be bad guys. It did have a happy ending, which as a children's show was necessary; but, I think it would have been a really cool and disruptive conclusion had it ended on the warning. The whole piece was light and silly, but had this permeating heaviness that was rather unnerving. The context of the show is important to remember and the contradiction that then exists was a really uncomfortable, but wildly interesting addition to the piece.
This show is troubling, but also weirdly uplifting. It's a show of opposites and contractions which, based on who is watching, can either be very powerful or not work very well at all. I'm still not sure which view is mine, but I'm still thinking about it, so that has to account for something.
Music by Hans Krasa; Libretto by Adolf Hoffmeister; Adapted by Tony Kushner; Directed by Scott Edmiston; Music Direction by Todd C. Gordon; Choreography by Ilyse Robbins; Scenic Design by Jenna McFarland Lord; Costume Design by Leslie Held; Lighting Design by Karen Perlow; Sound Design by Kyle Olmstead; Puppet Design by David Fichter; Puppets Built by Brad Shur; Properties Managed by Joe Stallone; Stage Managed by Dominique D. Burford; Assistant Stage Managed by Misaki Nishimiya
Brundibar & But the Giraffe is running through April 6 at the Central Square Theatre. For more information and for tickets, visit www.centralsquaretheater.org.