`Dialogue' hits nerve

Theater

Holocaust: Powerful performance/discussion feels so real it can overwhelm.

February 01, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

"Theatre in Dialogue," an innovative touring program created by Baltimore's Performance Workshop Theatre Company, has a history of provoking a lot more than just discussion.

In the past, the educational production about the Holocaust has elicited angry, even violent, reactions.

The program's format includes two one-act plays by Bertolt Brecht, followed by a documentary slide show and an audience discussion in which the actors remain in character. The plays, "The Jewish Wife" and "The Informer," chronicle life in Germany in the early 1930s. Their translator, Eric Bentley, has said of them: "As tales of horror, they seem mild after the news of later years. Yet the virus is there, and the diagnosis is correct, even if the disease is not depicted at its height."

In a recent interview, Marlyn G. Robinson, co-artistic director of the Performance Workshop Theatre, a nonprofit professional South Baltimore-based company, discussed the history of the program, which is currently accepting bookings for its second year of tours in the Baltimore area.

"Theatre in Dialogue" began in 1980, when Robinson's company was based in Bethlehem, Pa. Alice L. Eckardt, a Holocaust scholar on the faculty of Bethlehem's Lehigh University, asked her to develop a theater piece about the Holocaust, which could be presented in Eckhardt's classroom. "What I came up with was the Brecht plays, with the idea that we would bring in some actors and do a reading," Robinson said. "Well, it took off from there because the [college] chaplain heard about it and said, `Would you please develop it into a performance? And let's present it to the whole university.' "

Robinson toured the plays in Pennsylvania for a year. In this first incarnation, the performances were followed by discussions moderated by a representative of the sponsoring organization, usually a professor or clergyman. "In the second year, I developed this idea of the characters coming forward in a time warp. You couldn't ask them any questions past 1934," she explained. "It became very intimate. It seemed to open up people's sense of participation."

Occasionally that intimacy created too much verisimilitude. "The Jewish Wife," for instance, is about the young Jewish wife of a German gentile, who does nothing to prevent her from leaving the country when she senses that their marriage may damage his career. After a performance at a synagogue, Robinson recalled, a Holocaust survivor leapt out of the audience and reached for the throat of Marc Horwitz, the theater company's co-artistic director and the actor playing the husband. "Fortunately, Marc is a big strong fellow" and was able to ward off the attack, Robinson said. "This man saw him as a Nazi."

On another occasion, at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., the technician assigned to assist the company was the son of parents who had belonged to a Nazi youth group. During the after-play discussion, he stepped out of the technical booth and launched into an unexpected tirade, berating the Versailles Treaty for devastating Germany. This time there were two Holocaust survivors in the audience. "One woman jumped up and screamed, `There's a Nazi in here,' and ran out of the auditorium," Robinson said. "The other survivor fainted."

Robinson moved to Baltimore in 1987, and she and Horwitz re-established the Performance Workshop Theatre Company here seven years later. Last year, she decided to try presenting "Theatre in Dialogue" to high school students. With the history of the Holocaust much better known -- thanks in part to Washington's Holocaust Museum and the movie "Schindler's List" -- she felt younger audiences would be receptive to the work.

Launching a pilot program with a cast of a half-dozen trained local actors, she took the plays to schools in communities from Pikesville to Sparrows Point, as well as to two Washington synagogues. The response was so positive, Robinson said, "Now the goal is to take it in even wider circles."

"Theatre in Dialogue," which has funding from the Maryland Arts Council as well as private charitable organizations, will tour the area the last three weeks in April. The program, including slide show and discussion, lasts 90 minutes. The booking fee is $650.

For booking information, contact Harriet Lynn, the theater's Educational Outreach associate, at 410-235-9194, or by e-mail at hlynn@c-h-n.com.

Longer stay for `Jitney'

Center Stage has extended the run of August Wilson's "Jitney" an extra week, by popular demand. The engagement will now continue through Feb. 21. The added week will include three matinees: 1 p.m. Feb. 19 and 2 p.m. Feb. 20 and 21, the closing performance.

Six days later, the production will transfer to the Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo, N.Y., after which it will move to the GeVa Theatre in Rochester, N.Y. "Artistic directors and managing directors from all over the country have been coming to see the show with an eye toward booking it," said Linda Geeson, director of communications for Center Stage.

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