BALTIMORE — Seventy years after the Holocaust ended, artist Joanna Caplan is using the stage to revisit that tragic period in human history in a rather unconventional way.
Inspired by the diaries of Jewish-Dutch poet and writer Etty Hillesum, Caplan explores in a new one-woman play life in the Westerbork transit camp, a way station in the Netherlands for those being shipped to Auschwitz and other death camps. In “Total Verrückt!” Caplan tells the story of concentration camp prisoners who put on cabaret performances to escape the reality in which they were trapped.
Hillesum’s memoir — “An Interrupted Life: Letters from Westerbork” — includes passages about some of Europe’s most celebrated cabaret artists putting on shows at Westerbork, providing a meditation on “the necessity of art as a means of survival and an act of resistance,” Caplan told The Times of Israel.
“The book resonated with me on so many levels – as a performer and as a Jew – and I wanted to use it as a framework to devise an original work of my own,” the Montreal-born-and-raised artist said. “It not only allows me to visit this enormous historical event, but it also allows me to explore the role our imaginations play in the midst of oppression and darkness.”
“Total Verrückt!” just finished a run at the Baltimore Theatre Project from December 3 to December 6. It was developed while Caplan, 31, was in a residency program at the Double Edge Theatre’s Farm Center in Ashfield, Massachusetts, starting in 2009.
The 50-minute play weaves the stories of five characters at Westerbork, who each, in their own way, rely on their creativity to endure the horror of the camp and their fate. “The worst thing to be without is pen and paper,” one says. “I would have to come to terms with the cold and discomfort.”
‘With this play I use World War II and the Holocaust as the setting, as a particular landscape to try and depict something universal’
Caplan plays each role, transitioning from character to character and from monologues to cabaret performances, shifting from costumes that are reminiscent of “Schindler’s List” and the Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini.
“It was a moving piece of stagecraft,” 74-year-old Phyllis Hersh from Baltimore said after the opening show. “It’s amazing the way those who experienced it could create art in those circumstances. For me, that made it about more than just the Holocaust. It says so much about resilience and the human spirit.”
Hersh came with her husband, Ralph, 78, after seeing an ad for the play in The Baltimore Sun. For him, “Total Verrückt!” gave a sense of the finality of what was going on. “As you are watching you realize, well, we know what would happen to them when they got east, but they didn’t know.”
After the show, however, both were still grappling with the meaning of the show’s title, which they found “particularly enticing,” Phyllis added.
“Total Verrückt!” translates into “totally crazy” in German. The title is derived from the final production ever given at Westerbork in 1944.
“The title is one of the reasons we were interested in the show when we learned about it, but I’m still thinking about all the layers of meaning it has,” Ralph said. “There’s a sense, certainly, that the whole event of the Holocaust was totally crazy, but there is more to it than that, I believe. I think it’s also about what happens to the minds of the victims.”
‘Throughout our history Jews have contributed so much to the world of art and storytelling’
Indeed, Caplan said she wanted to evoke a sense of how one lives “in strangeness and darkness,” but also provide an interpretation of the Jewish imagination.
“With this play I use World War II and the Holocaust as the setting, as a particular landscape to try and depict something universal and, in some ways, always relevant,” she said.
The Jewish story, she said, is so often about facing persecution and enduring struggle.
“And throughout our history Jews have contributed so much to the world of art and storytelling. I see it as just sort of essential to our ability to survive and overcome the most challenging of circumstances,” said Caplan.