Review: TAP DANCING THROUGH AUSCHWITZ Is A Beam Of Light In Our Dark World

Audiences have one more chance to see this play on December 24

By: Dec. 23, 2022
Review: TAP DANCING THROUGH AUSCHWITZ Is A Beam Of Light In Our Dark World

Tonight is the sixth night of Hanukkah. After a year filled with antisemitism, violence and hardship, one might question their faith in humanity or a higher power. However, Tyler Ellman's play Tap Dancing Through Auschwitz, which opened last night at the Arts Garage in Delray Beach, reminds audiences that the world can still find light, even in the darkest of times.

Tap Dancing Through Auschwitz made its world premiere at the High Dive in Gainesville when Ellman was still a student at the University of Florida. The play would later be presented in 2019 at the Boca Black Box Theater, where it was produced by TDTA Productions and BARCLAY Performing Arts. The two companies brought this play to the Arts Garage following the pandemic.

At first glance, this intimate piece seems somewhat out of place in the Arts Garage's larger cabaret space where certain patrons can feel distant from the action. However, this sold out performance managed to captivate audiences from the back row of tables.

A semi-autobiographical play, Tap Dancing Through Auschwitz deals with coming of age themes of identity, love, and perseverance. Furthermore, this play reminds audiences of the cruel and calculated acts of hatred, torture and genocide at the hands of the Nazi party during the Holocaust.

Tap Dancing Through Auschwitz tells the story of Avi (Blaine DeBerry), a young, optimistic Jewish boy who longs for a career as a professional dancer. His dreams seem dashed when he gets rejected from NYU, and is encouraged by his mother (Jen Andrews) to study advertising. When Avi and his best friend Katie (Neena Caperna) participate in the March of the Living, an educational pilgrimage to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, their friendship and faith are constantly tested.

During their trip, Avi and Katie meet Noam (Spencer Landis), a first generation Israeli American with a dark secret; Emily (Briana Earhart), a young girl from a Jewish school with a negative outlook on life; and her mostly silent boyfriend Jared (Kristian Papke). Throughout their journey, the teens receive wisdom from Miriam (Penny Mandel), an octogenarian Holocaust survivor and Jason (Gustavo Garcia), a tour guide.

Christine Barclay directs this play with a minimalist mise en scene, with only one lone Israeli flag draped on a piano for scenery. This allows the audience to concentrate on the actors' storytelling. Barclay encourages the show's ensemble of seven to form the familial bond that teens collectively experience on a journey of spiritual awakening.

In the role of Avi, DeBerry conveys a spectrum of emotions onstage. Throughout the evening, the audience can see his character slowly metamorphose from a privileged juvenile brat to a giving sensitive empath. Even when he is landing jokes with gusto, DeBerry grounds Avi's witticisms in reality. Additionally, when DeBerry performs simple tap dance steps, audiences can see Avi's internal monologue during every shuffle-ball-change. This physical embodiment can also be seen when Avi experiences a nervous breakdown after visiting the gas chamber.

As Katie, Caperna is seen as the voice of reason to DeBerry's pie-in-the-sky Avi. Her chemistry with her fellow actors is apparent from her first scene. As an actor, Caperna instinctively knows when to shift from a grounded leader to a goofball. Near the final curtain, Caperna showcases her vocal chops when she leads the ensemble in a rousing rendition of Mi Shebeirach, a prayer for peace once sung by the late Debbie Friedman.

Mandel takes on the role of Miriam, a supportive and compassionate woman who acts as a surrogate grandmother during the teens' March of the Living experience. As she delivers an emotionally raw monologue about her character watching her father die by hanging as a young child, Mandel struggles to hold back her vulnerability and tears.

As the calm yet mysterious Noam, Landis carries himself with a laid back gait and candid vocal delivery. He punctuates this physicality by wearing a wool hat over his eyes, which seems like a symbolic character choice. Landis creates a clear distinction between Noam's masked composure when he first meets Avi at the airport and his unbridled, anxious demeanor when he reveals the secret of his father's illness.

Earhart adds layers of nuance to her portrayal of Emily. We initially see Emily as a more spiritual and religious girl in a loving relationship. Over time, Earhart makes subtle choices to convey her character's dissent into a mean-spirited, self-centered bully. Earhart brings the right amount of sass and disgust to her role.

As Jason, Garcia serves as an authoritative leader and peacekeeper, standing tall and proud onstage. His commanding stage presence leaves the audience in deafening silence. Garcia's intensity is heightened during the gas chamber scene, where his character vividly describes how six million Jews were killed in gory detail. Shortly after this scene, Garcia recites the Mourner's Kaddish with reverence and grace, causing the room to enter a meditative state.

While Tap Dancing Through Auschwitz is presented with minimal tech, the production's lighting and sound cues enhance Ellman's script and Barclay's staging. Jonathan Noah Wiley adds some unique washes to the show's color palate, including neon green for the gas chamber and deep red for flashback scenes set during the Holocaust. Select scenes were poignantly punctuated by the blowing of a shofar or an intense heartbeat. These prerecorded sound effects were executed by Amanda Gomes.

In a challenging year like 2022, Tap Dancing Through Auschwitz examines the growing antisemitism presented in various public forums throughout the country. While there could be more opportunities to explore certain characters in greater depth, Ellman writes a script with a message that continues to ring true with each passing year: "we must have faith. We must remember why we go on. We fight for love and we fight for the power of the human spirit. It's what we must do, to keep moving forward." Hopefully, this play will reach a wider audience, empowering more people to open their hearts and conquer hate.

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