Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2009
“We believe that the creative impulse is essential to the human soul, and that the Arts are the most realized expression of this impulse.” – Shakespeare & Company Mission Statement
I am here to tell you that you would be foolish not to invest your time and money attending a performance of The Actors Rehearse the Story of Charlotte Salomon, playing a way-too-brief two week run in the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare & Company. I know there are a lot of things making this show unappealing to you – it’s a one-woman show, the actress is new to the Berkshires, the subject matter is obscure and complex, shows about the Holocaust are too scary and depressing for a summer’s evening, etc.. Never mind all that. Just go. Trust me. This is wonderful, thought-provoking theatre meticulously crafted and presented by a fearsomely talented and engaging actress. And, surprisingly, there are quite a few laughs to be had.
I know it says “...the story of Charlotte Salomon” in the title, but hers is only one of the stories being told. It is the story of Penny Kreitzer, the actress on stage, and her experience with the Jerusalem Drama Workshop trying to stage Salomon’s Leben? Oder Theater? (Life? Or Theater?) in 1984. In that production she played both Charlotte Salomon (1917-1943) and her stepmother, Paula Lindberg-Salomon (1897-2000), a famous operatic contralto, as she does again here. Paula attended the rehearsal being depicted, and so we get her story, and the story of Alfred Wolfsohn (1896-1962), a vocal coach who played a major role in the lives of Kreitzer, Salomon, and Lindberg-Salomon.
Who was Charlotte Salomon? She was a German-Jewish artist gassed at Auschwitz at the age of 26. In 1941 Charlotte was sent from Berlin to live with her maternal grandparents in southern France. There she witnessed her grandmother’s suicide and learned that she was just the latest in a long line of suicides in the family, including Charlotte’s own mother. Her grandfather told her that she would inevitably take her own life too, a proposition that seemed tempting given her bleak prospects for survival under the Nazis.
To be, or not to be?
As I understand it, Charlotte believed she had two choices: To commit suicide, or to live and do something dramatic with her life.
Life? Or Theater?
She decided to paint her life, and spent the two years before she was sent to Auschwitz creating more than a thousand gouaches and watercolors. She added text and musical cues and organized 769 of them into Leben? Oder Theater?: Ein Singespiel (Life? Or Theater?: A Play with Music). Days before she and her husband were arrested, she gave the suitcase containing her work to a neighbor saying: “Keep this for me. It is my whole life.” Years later Charlotte’s father Dr. Albert Salomon, a prominent surgeon, and Paula went to southern France seeking news of Charlotte’s life and were given the suitcase. Eventually the art found its way to the Joods Historisch Museum in Amsterdam where it is on permanent display.
In Leben? Oder Theater? and in her paintings, Charlotte implied that Wolfsohn, a shell-shocked veteran of World War I who ultimately developed a theory of vocal training based on psychological healing, was her first lover. Wolfsohn’s personality and theories were anathema to Paula, herself a respected voice teacher, but it was rumored that she too had an affair with him. Decades later, Kreitzer studied Wolfsohn’s vocal techniques as a member of the Roy Hart Theatre.
Wolfsohn was convinced that the human voice was inextricably linked to the human psyche. Paula and Kreitzer literally used their voices to create themselves and their careers. For Charlotte, her “voice” was her painting.
Life? Or Theater?
“I will paint my life,” Kreitzer’s Charlotte says firmly.
And Kreitzer raises her brush and through a simple but dramatic bit of electronic stage wizardry, she does just that.
We see Charlotte’s paintings, we hear some of her writing, we hear (I believe) a bit of a recording of Paula singing (To hear her sing J.S. Bach's Bis Du bei mir click HERE). Kreitzer tells us she cannot sing and she cannot paint – we have no proof of the latter, but she gives ample sampling of her own lovely contralto singing voice. But we also listen and watch as she gives voice to a total of sixteen characters on stage – male and female, old and young, from different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. I know you have seen this trick before as plays in which one actor plays multiple roles are now commonplace, but Kreitzer is really, really good, and the story she is telling is so interesting and so compelling that you forget the trickery and follow her eagerly along.
For some people the words, the ideas life and theater are complete opposites – life is “real” and theater is “pretend.” They are wrong. For people like me, who spend their lives looking at theater – thinking about it and writing about it – it is often much more honest than life. In life people dissemble and we accept that as their reality. On stage actors and actresses tell us up front that you are not seeing them as people, but them as artists.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Tina Packer, the Founding Artistic Director of Shakespeare & Company, about The Actors Rehearse... a few weeks ago in preparation for a piece I was writing for the June issue of The Women’s Times (pick up your copy NOW!) and she said this:
“We don’t often get a chance to show the audience how the stories we present on stage do affect our lives as artists.”
Not surprisingly, she’s right. Tina Packer knows a thing or two about Life and Theater. While it is true that, over the course of a career, actors accept many roles that are just jobs to them, there are others that, for reasons the audience many never know, affect them deeply. For Penny Kreitzer, her experience with Charlotte and Paula on stage and off a quarter of a century ago was so profound that she and co-author David Bridel have dedicated five years trying to “find a voice” and articulate it publicly. Their director and third co-author, Jonathan Rest, has been working with them about half of that time.
“This is a story about the human voice, which interests me deeply,” Packer said. “If we don’t own our voices, literally, we become less effective in our ability to say things and have what we say affect others.”
For each of us, finding our own individual voices and methods of communication is key to establishing a sense of self, of purpose, value, and security. Packer has built a company all about voices. The Linklater Voice Technique and text analysis are central to their education and training programs. Members of the Company serve as actor/managers giving them powerful voices backstage as well as on.
It was on the bloody battlefields of World War I, listening to the cries of injured and dying men, that Wolfsohn realized that the human voice had more octaves than what we normally use. It was learning of her family history of suicide that freed Charlotte’s artistic voice. Paula used her voice not just to entertain, but ultimately to save her own life and that of Charlotte’s father.
Before I went to see The Actors Rehearse... I wondered how Kreitzer, Bridel, and Rest were going to fit all this story into the 60-90 minutes one performer can hold the stage. The answer is by short-changing the title character. We learn much less about Charlotte and her work than we learn about Kreitzer, Paula, and Wolfsohn.
There have been a number of books and plays written and films made about Charlotte and her work, but it is interesting how unknown she is even though her artwork has been publicly available since the 1960s. If nothing else, I hope this play, which will go on to be performed at Bridel’s Franklin Stage Company (Located just southwest of Oneonta in Delaware County, NY) on June 20 & 21, will get more people interested in Charlotte and her work. To add further information on the subject Kreitzer and Rest will lead a Diva Dialogue on the question Who was Charlotte Salomon? at 5 pm on Sunday, June 7.
Shakespeare & Company's production of The Actors Rehearse the Story of Charlotte Salomon will be performed through June 14 and on September 12 in the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre on the Kemble Street campus in Lenox, MA. The show runs an hour and twenty minutes with no intermission and is suitable for ages 13 and up.
The Bernstein is air-conditioned and wheelchair accessible. Performances in the evenings run at 8:30 p.m. and in the afternoons at 3:00 p.m. Tickets range from $12 to $48. For a complete listing of productions and schedules, to inquire about student, Senior, Berkshire resident and Rush Tix, or to receive a brochure, please visit the website at www.shakespeare.org or call the Box Office at (413) 637-3353. For group visits, contact Group Sales Manager Victoria Vining at (413) 637-1199 ext. 132.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009