Saturday, October 10, 2009

'Terezin' revisited: Powerful play returns to stage

OK, let's sort out the numbers: The one being thrown around the most is 30, but 40 is probably more accurate and you certainly could make the case for 25. Fact is, Anna Smulowitz has been doing theater in Newburyport for three decades, so when the poster says she will be staging her 30th-anniversary production of "Terezin: Children of the Holocaust" next week at the Firehouse, it is an accurate statement. But "Terezin," which depicts two days in the lives of children who share a cell in Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp in the former Czechoslovakia, actually predates her arrival in town. Smulowitz wrote the play 40 years ago while a student at the University of Cincinnati. It premiered there in 1970 — close, but no cigar for round-number anniversaries. It was first staged locally 25 years ago, back when Smulowitz's fledgling Children's Theater still bounced from location to location. That 1984 production was filmed by Tom Bergeron, now the host of "Dancing with the Stars," but back then a reporter with WBZ-TV — which is how the production grabbed the American Children's Television Award.

Some more numbers:

• Seven years: That's how long since "Terezin" has been staged; the performance hiatus came as Smulowitz pursued spiritual goals, becoming an Interfaith Minister through the Chaplaincy Institute of Maine. She is now the Rev. Anna Smulowitz Schutz, chaplain of Renaissance Gardens at Brooksby Village.

• Fourteen years: That's how long it's been since "Terezin" has been staged locally. The last show was a somewhat controversial performance at Triton Regional High School that vividly illustrated why the play is so important: A student threw a paper airplane on which he had written "Hile Hitler" at the actors during cast call. "I remember being especially annoyed by the spelling," Smulowitz recalls.

But the most important numbers are never directly mentioned in the play, but cast long shadows over everything: The six children represent the 15,000 children who died at Terezin, representing only a fraction of the 97,000 Jews who died in this one camp, representing only a fraction of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis. And another number, 132 — the number of the children who survived Terezin — some of whom were in the audiences in the mid-'90s, when Smulowitz took the show to Europe for chilling, emotional performances at the site(s) of the crimes.

The daughter of Buchenwald and Auschwitz survivors who was born in a displaced persons camp in the aftermath of World War II, Smulowitz describes "Terezin" as a prayer and a testament for the million-plus children who were victims of Nazi war crimes. She won the North Shore Anti-Defamation League's Leadership Award last year for her work with the play — bringing it into the schools, linking its lessons with contemporary issues like bullying and homophobia. She sees theater "as a kind of ministry," and the school shows — especially after-show dialogues — as “a way to connect the dots of intolerance,” she says. "”That's why I do it."

After the Firehouse show, "Terezin" will begin a short tour of area schools.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Anna Smulowitz's "Terezin: Children of the Holocaust" will be staged Oct. 15-18 at the Firehouse Center, 1 Market Square, Newburyport. Show times are 7:30 p.m. There will also be matinee performances at 3 p.m. Oct. 17 and 18, and a dress rehearsal performance at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 14. All ticket are $12 and available at the box office only. For more information, call 978.462.7336 or check out the Firehouse web.

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