CATHOLIC HERALD STAFF
One of the most difficult and yet amazing aspects about the rancorous satire The Last Cyclist is that the original play was written and rehearsed inside a Nazi concentration camp. The play is based on a recreation of a surreal cabaret written in the Terezìn Ghetto by Czech dramatist Karel Svenk in 1944. It was rehearsed before other inmates, but never performed publicly due to fear of reprisals from the Nazis.
Svenk and much of the original cast were eventually moved to Auschwitz, and the script was lost. Only one original performer is known to have survived, Jana Sedova, who reconstructed the play from memory in 1961 for one performance in Prague.
In an unprecedented partnership, Cardinal Stritch University’s Theater program, the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center (HERC) and the Harry and Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center will present the Milwaukee premiere of The Last Cyclist this month. The eight performances will be held at the Nancy Kendall Theater in the Joan Steele Stein Center for Communication Studies/Fine Arts on the Stritch campus.
The current version was “reconstructed and reimagined” by Naomi Patz. While the action and characters are often heavy-handed, the play credibly conveys the necessity for people to take personal responsibility in resisting prejudice and racism.
With spirited direction by Mark Boergers, chairman of Stritch’s theatre program, the cabaret is a daring, gallows-humor, absurdist allegory that expands on the “Jews and the cyclists” theme, making cyclists the victims of the inmates of a mental asylum who escape and take over the outside world. They hound, oppress, exile or kill everyone who rides a bicycle and anyone who has ever had anything to do with cyclists for many generations back.
“To me, this is a very complex production to realize. I think the complexity lies in the layered message. This play is different from many other plays that address the Holocaust. Most plays seek to depict the horrors of the Holocaust, and this play does some of that,” said Boergers. “Further and deeper, however, is the fact that the cabaret itself is a satirical comedy. It took us, as a team, a while to adjust to that idea: a play with the topic of the Holocaust that is a comedy. The next layer is that this play was written by people who mostly did not make it through the Holocaust, and that the cabaret did not have an audience when it was created.”
Those underlying layers created a deep responsibility for Boergers and the cast as they staged the play. He added that it will likely create mixed emotions among the audience, as well.
“Finally, the play is challenging because it exists both in a specific historical time period, but also in the dreams of the inmates who used the process of creating this play as a form of spiritual resistance,” said Boergers. “The absurd world of the political satire they created feels like an expression of their limitless creativity. So, as a team, we have to address the reality of their resources to make art inside a concentration camp, but we also wanted to pay homage to that creative spirit. All these layers make this process challenging, but also create opportunities to collaborate and use our collective craft to tell this story. That expression of craft has given myself and our team a deep tie to the original creators and allowed us to feel like we are giving the play and the artist the respect they deserve.”
The fact that the screenwriter was a prisoner in the Terezìn ghetto when he wrote the play and the actors rehearsed the show in an attic in the camp, puts the entire play in perspective for Laura Ellingen, who plays Marianna, Head Physician and Lunatic 3 in the production. She has done substantial historical research that helps put her in the mindset of her characters and their experiences.
“One of the challenges in portraying my characters is making each character specific from the others,” she said. “They each have their own personalities and history, so my job is to distinguish one character from the others and create a different persona for each. Another challenge in portraying my characters, particularly Marianna, is understanding where they are coming from and what life they are experiencing day to day.”
Immersed in Holocaust life through the production, Ellingen said she now has a greater understanding of concentration camps. One thing she hadn’t known was that Terezìn was used as a propaganda camp where the Nazis would take pictures or give tours to the Red Cross to prove that the detainment of Jews and others in the camp was perfectly fine.
“In reality, thousands of prisoners were mistreated and killed in the camp, but their stories were not being told,” she said. “There were also many artists of all kinds living in Terezìn who produced artwork reflecting their experiences in the camp and combatting the iniquities they suffered. It is so important to pass on the narratives of those who went before us to honor their memory and learn from the past.”
As a professional actor, Leslie Fitzwater has appeared in several productions, including 3 Penny Opera, 110 In The Shade, Fiddler On The Roof, I Never Saw Another Butterfly and more, and was thrilled to be chosen to portray Franta, who plays Rich and Mrs. Manickova.
“It has been great fun as we learn from each other and become inspired by each other’s perspective on the play, and on acting styles. Seeing how willing we all are to dive in and become completely invested in a noble project makes for a great collaboration,” she explained. “The circumstances surrounding the birth of The Last Cyclist is simultaneously upsetting and humbling. The strength of character it must have taken to risk everything by wanting to produce this very pointed satire is awesome. In the truest sense of that word, I am full of awe for these actors. The indomitable nature of the human spirit is laid bare for all to see in The Last Cyclist, and I will say a little prayer before each performance that we are able to do it justice.”
Ellingen said that it’s been incredible to wrap her head around the faith and hope of the prisoners in Terezìn as they held onto hope so tightly in a way she can only begin to comprehend.
“To think they had the courage to write and perform this play while suffering the injustices of the Holocaust is almost beyond fathoming,” she said. “When I reflect on the hope of the prisoners, it makes me consider my own faith and hope for the future. Even when days seem dark or we think we cannot go on, it is crucial to cling to God and our faith. The hope of something greater than ourselves keeps us moving forward. Being a part of this production reminds me of this hope daily.”
For Boergers, directing The Last Cyclist has had a profound impact on him as a person, teacher and artist. Since he first learned of the Holocaust as a child, the horrors of lives lost, affected him deeply. While curious about bringing the production to fruition, he also wrestled with fear.
“The play was not a linear line toward a blockbuster hit. It is something deeper and more complex that I was afraid of when I first read the script,” he said. “I learned long ago, however, that it is the activities one is afraid of that are probably the most important ones to pursue. So, about a year and a half ago, we jumped in with both feet and I’d have to say that adage is holding true.”
The Last Cyclist
Thursday, April 4, 7 p.m. — Playwright Naomi Palz, who wrote The Last Cyclist, will be in Milwaukee for the Milwaukee premiere and a talkback with audience members on opening night. This will be followed by a dessert reception.
Friday, April 5, 3 p.m.
Saturday, April 6, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, April 7, 2 p.m.
Thursday, April 11, 7:30 p.m.
Friday, April 12, 3 p.m.
Saturday, April 13, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, April 14, 2 p.m.
Tickets for the opening night performance are available through the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center. Tickets for all other performances are available through Stritch at https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3595264.