BWW Reviews: Ocean State Theatre Company Puts on Powerhouse Production of THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK
It's interesting to wonder, does anyone write in a diary anymore? With Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all the online outlets for recording daily thoughts, is diary writing something of the past? In that time of the past, diaries, journals and letters were how we recorded our daily experiences, thoughts, observations and feelings. The written word, often kept private in our own personal diaries and journals, was how we expressed ourselves, perhaps the most honest and truthful way we did so.
When Anne Frank wrote in her diary, she was not just expressing her honest and true feelings about her daily observations and experiences. She was recording for posterity a harrowing tale of how a group of people tried against all odds to survive one of the most terrible times in history. Anne's family and friends hid in an attic for just over two years as the Nazis occupied the Netherlands. While living in constant fear of being discovered and captured, Anne and the others did all they could to attempt a normal existence and hold on to some semblance of optimism and hope. Ocean State Theatre Company's production of The Diary of Anne Frank perfectly creates those moments of hope while at the same time truthfully revealing how these people's resilience and courage were tested every day.
Much of the success of this production comes from director Amiee Turner, who works an ensemble of actors like a conductor leading an orchestra. Turner's staging brings the fear and anxiety of this group of people to vivid life while creating tension so thick it reaches out over the audience and holds them for the play's entire length. At the same time, she has equal success at bringing the aforementioned moments of joy and hope to life, which makes the sense of impeding tragedy only more powerful.
Speaking of powerful, Turner has brought together one of the most collectively commanding ensembles in recent memory. It's unfortunate that it's the character of Anne who suffers the most in this situation. Making her Ocean State Theatre Company debut, Olivia Gesualdi doesn't have much of a chance given the sheer force of acting talent around her and just how much presence, confidence and charisma the other actors have in comparison.
Gesualdi is also not helped by the interpretation of Anna in this production, which just doesn't feel right. It may be the valid point made by the audience member sitting next to me which clarifies the matter. When we spoke at intermission, she remarked that this wasn't the Anne she remembered from the book, that this wasn't the headstrong but sweet Anne she imagined or envisioned. It's hard to argue with that assessment. This Anne is extremely brazen and assertive, even angry, and the entire performance is very loud and in-your-face. It lacks any levels or nuances, with the texture of the character getting lost in the seeming need to say every line exactly the same way, as loud as possible. It feels a lot more like Anna right out of 2014 rather than 1942 and, in the end, robs Anne and her story of some of its power.
Leading the way among the other actors is Mark S. Cartier as Mr. Frank. He begins and ends the play, which truthfully feels more like his story rather than Anne's. Cartier has a large role in that fact, since he is an extremely charismatic actor who fully embodies this man who doing his best to handle an impossible situation. Mr. Frank is the rock that holds everyone else together and Cartier's performance is just as steady, always consistent, committed and believable.
Just as believable is Karen Gail Kessler as Mrs. Frank. Kessler brings absolute truth and wonderful sensitivity to her moments of maternal support and/or suffering. At the other end of the spectrum, she's just as believably fierce and unstoppable when the discovery of a secret leads Mrs. Frank to unleash her fury. As the final member of the Frank family, Alexandra Fortin is excellent as Margot, Anne's sister. Her performance is subtle but a pleasure to watch.
A number of other people hid in the attic with the Franks, beginning with the Van Daan family. As Mrs. Van Daan, Elise Arsenault is the perfect picture of frayed nerves and emotional tumult. While her performance may seem over-the-top at times, it may actually be spot-on, considering the situation Mrs. Van Daan found herself in. Her husband, Mr. Van Daan, is played with a bit of sleazy shadiness by Ethan Paulini. It's another excellent portrayal of a complex character. Is he really a shady character? Or is he just trying to survive as best he can? Their son, Peter Van Daan is played here by an excellent young actor, Brian Roque, who has far more stage presence and charisma than his age might lead you to believe.
The final member of the group hiding in the attic is Mr. Dussel, played by Tommy Labanaris. Having seen Labanaris in OSTC's production of Laughter on the 23rd Floor, this performance is a revelation. It's a testament to just how versatile and a talented an actor his is, able to bring to life such different, but fully realized characters. Finally among the cast are Sarah Pierce and Rudy Sanda as Miep and Mr. Kraler, who helped the group, supplying them with food, necessary items and news of the war. Pierce and Sanda are just as exceptional as the rest of this impressive cast.
Also impressive is the set design by Amanda R. Hall. It is a perfectly realized and finely detailed creation, transporting the audience into the attic with these people. Helping along the way are the lighting design by David A. Sexton and costume design by Jessie Darrell-Jarbadan. All of the technical elements work perfectly together to help tell the story.
Anne's story is one that has been read and seen by millions around the world, which is as it should be. It's an important story, perhaps one of the most important of the 21st century, in that, in a very personal and private way, it lets us into a unique and profound moment. While we might not want to ever revisit that moment, it does have something to say and to teach us, something about the capacity for hope, optimism and the belief in the good of all people. Those things were in short supply then and there are many places where they are still in short supply today, making Anne's story all the more relevant and necessary.
The Diary of Anne Frank runs through April 13 and Tickets are $34/$44/$49 with discounts for groups of 20 or more. Showtimes are Wed at 7:30 pm (except 4/2), Thurs at 2 (except 4/10) & 7:30 pm, Fri at 7:30 pm, Sat at 2 (except 4/12) & 7:30 pm, Sun at 2 pm. Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at (401) 921-6800 or by visiting the website www.oceanstatetheatre.org or in person by visiting the box office during normal hours, Monday through Friday 12noon to 6pm, Saturdays from 12noon to 4pm and up until curtain on perfomance days.
Pictured (L to R): Mark S. Cartier, Karen Gail Kessler and Olivia Gesualdi. Photo by Mark Turek.