Play written in Terezin Ghetto – but never performed ­– to see light

 

The play was written by a prisoner of a Holocaust-era ghetto. Today, its presence is to be felt locally.

“The Last Cyclist” is being staged April 4-14 at Cardinal Stritch University in Fox Point.

The original version of “The Last Cyclist” was written as a cabaret in 1944 by Karel Svenk, a prisoner in the Terezin Ghetto.

The play is based on “the allegory of lunatics, referring to the Nazis and the cyclists, referring to the Jews,” said playwright Naomi Patz, who built and reimagined a new version based on what survived the war from the original.

“This was a really savvy, smart political commentary … form of resistance,” said Cardinal Stritch University Theater Department Director Mark Boergers.

Actors Joel Kopischke, Marcee Doherty-Elst, Laura Ellingen and Amanda Richards rehearsed for the Last Cyclist (this is not a dress rehearsal) on March 14, 2019 at Cardinal Stritch University in Fox Point. Photos by Rob Golub.

“The Last Cyclist” was written to also be a “laugh-out-loud comedy,” Patz said.

The production at Stritch is a “play within a play,” and it is “being played to our audience as if our audience was made up of the prisoners,” she said.

The set design is a recreation of the Terezin Ghetto, with “lots of bed sheets, rope, found knick-knacks and garbage,” Boergers said. The cast includes students and professional actors. “The Last Cyclist” at Stritch is in collaboration with the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center of Milwaukee Jewish Federation and the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, along with the university.

According to Patz, Terezin was full of “the Jewish elite of conductors, artists, actors and composers.”

The prisoners only rehearsed the play and never performed it to its intended audience, being the Nazis, because the Council of Jewish Elders was afraid of repercussions, Patz said.

The prisoners put on theatrical productions “to keep up their morale; to keep up on the culture that they knew,” she said. They never did a production in the genre of tragedy, she said.

In his directing, Boergers is “seeking to represent their artistic dream world,” he said.

Laura Monagle plays Jana, a character who survived the Holocaust and helped save the memory of a play written in the Terezin Ghetto, so that “The Last Cyclist” could be performed before present-day audiences. Monagle rehearsed at Cardinal Stritch University on March 14, 2019, weeks before dress rehearsals were to begin.

The reconstruction of this play has been “a labor of love and homage to these particular prisoners,” Patz said.

The production at Stritch has an “abrupt ending, where the conclusion of the rehearsal is news of a round-up,” she said.  Except for one person, everyone involved in the rehearsals at Terezin, including Svenk, perished in death camps.

Boergers said that there is “sadness and drama in the play, for sure … and fear involved when you sit back and take in the totality of it all.”

* * *

How to go:

What: “The Last Cyclist” play

When: Playwright/director talkback with dessert reception plus live performance on Thursday, April 4 at 7 p.m. More performances through April 14, 2019.

Where: Cardinal Stritch University, 6801 N Yates Road, Fox Point, Nancy Kendall Mainstage Theater in the Joan Steele Stein Center for Communication Studies/Fine Arts building

More info on April 4: HolocaustCenterMilwaukee.org/TheLastCyclist

More info on other dates: Stritch.edu/Events