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Review: PANKRÁC '45 at Expats Theatre

Pankrác’45 is a must-see theatrical event.

Review: PANKRÁC '45 at Expats Theatre
L-R Karin Rosnizeck, Stacy Whittle, and Sara Barker.
Photo by Marvin Bowser.

Recriminations, reprisals and heart wrenching ruminations ensue as a group of five women face a time of purges and fear in the harrowing play Pankrác '45. Set in the infamous Pankrác Prison of Czechoslovakia during the end of the Nazi occupation in the year 1945, this trenchant and absorbing play by Czech Playwright Martina Kinská is an interesting melding of an historical context set against five very interesting character studies.

ExPats Theatre-in partnership with the Embassy of the Czech Republic-is presenting a play that raises disturbing questions that can be relevant to any time. Prescient questions and issues are continually raised throughout this penetrating play---who is innocent or guilty during war, the limits of supposed legal justice, and what is the individual morally responsible for--- in a world gone mad with conflicting and colliding moral imperatives. Co-Directors Melissa Robinson and Karin Rosnizeck keep taught, precise control over the emotional and claustrophobic proceedings.

This is indeed a turbulent drama of five women awaiting their fates----public executions and corrupt "Extraordinary people's courts" were prevalent. This play is a thespian's "field day", and these actresses tear into their roles with a ferocity and vigor that is to be applauded. All the actresses work together as a tight ensemble albeit there are certain moments where they shine individually.

Playing characters based on historical fact is no easy feat and these five actresses add unique touches and depth to their roles.

Stacy Whittle (Lída) portrays her actress character with verve yet vulnerability as she muses about "the Hollywood of Europe" and as she speaks with pride about her red dress. Whittle has a visceral presence that is striking and authentic.

Karin Rosnizeck (Adina) brings strength and biting humor to her actress character as she walks around the stage and defiantly provokes the other prisoners. A particular standout is her scene where she ruminates as to who was accused. (The four other characters, concurrently, wring out their clothes as if washing away guilt in a chilling scene).

Sara Barker (Hana) brings a subtle yet penetrating demeanor to her performance in her early scenes and then, gradually rounds out her parachutist character with dramatic texture and resonance. Barker delineates the steady presence of a survivor who now must face the thought of the gallows. Barker's scenes holding a flickering candle and stating that thirty-three people were shot in the evening are very well-handled.

Lisa Hodsoll (Julča) portrays her character with a stoic determination and earthiness that is quite compelling. Hodsoll conveys a quiet strength that helps to anchor the other characters. Her monologue on being forced to survive in a camp was outstanding.

Anika Olah (Nová/Karola) plays the character of a doctor with a feisty knowingness that works well. Her scene of being attacked was very well-played and ultimately harrowing. Olah has a very natural stage presence that aided the play immeasurably.

The scenic design in this play could be considered as one of the main performers as the utilitarian yet very evocative and ingenious set propels the entire action of the play. Scenic Designer Johnny Dahm Robertson adroitly uses the intimate theater space well, with a large wall of rows of identical-size units that configure into file cabinets, a bed, and coffins as the action unfolds. Robertson's use of intricately composed and historically accurate projections is nothing less than masterful. As the actors speak, the projections transition seamlessly and they convey emotional heft.

Lighting by Marianne Meadows is exquisitely sensitive and well-chosen in effect. Ms. Meadows' choices in the scene where Karola is attacked and when a candle is flickering are astounding.

Costumes by Brandee Matthies are very apt to the mood of the piece and quite striking in several set pieces.

The Sound Design by Karin Rosnizeck is meticulously thought out and each musical choice set the mood with aplomb.

The Speech Dialect coaching by Mary Mayo was spot-on; there was never a false note in the speaking lines.

As in every time of turmoil and change wrought by war, individuals are compromised and made to spy on one another in an atmosphere of distrust and paranoia that is almost "Kafkaesque" in intensity ---trust in any quarter is hard to find as the weighty trajectory of history marches on. (The sobering repression and hysteria portrayed anticipates the Soviet occupation from 1948 to 1989). This sobering message seems to be the thread that underscores the five characters' more specific struggles onstage.

Directors Melissa Robinson and Karen Rosnizeck have obviously grappled with the immense task of melding historical context with the dramatic narrative of this play by Martina Kinská (translated by Barbara Day) and succeeded admirably.

Pankrác'45 is a must-see theatrical event.

Running Time: Approx. 90 minutes with no intermission

Pankrác'45 runs October 28 through November 21, 2021, presented by ExPats Theatre performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center, Lab II, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, DC. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30pm; Sunday matinee at 2:30 pm. Tickets ($35 adult, $30 senior, students $20) are available online.

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