Alice Abracen’s new play, The Covenant, is about putting on a show. But it’s about as far as you can imagine from the razzmatazz of, say 42nd Street, or the in-joke hilarity of The Producers. No, the theatrical production its characters are putting together is Theresienstadt, the infamous Nazi twist on a Potemkin village, with its supposedly happy, thriving Jewish community in the heart of occupied Czechoslovakia.
Central to Abracen’s play are several brilliantly written and harrowing scenes involving what amounts to a series of production meetings between an anxious director and his demanding producer. Except here, the director, Peter (Jonathan Silver), is wearing a yellow star armband while the producer, Eric (Brett Watson), is a Nazi flunkey eager to impress his bosses with the perfect feelgood fiction.
The stakes are obviously far higher for Peter: if the illusion he is orchestrating (well-fed villagers, lots of fun leisure activities and so on) is broken and the Red Cross visitors are unconvinced, the community will be shut down and the precarious comforts enjoyed by the inmates will be replaced by a one-way ticket east.
So powerful and tense are these scenes between the desperately accommodating Peter and the disingenuously chummy Eric, and so potently is the language of meta-theatricalilty used, that it sometimes felt as though The Covenant might work even better as a stark, stripped-down two-hander.
Not that the rest of the play doesn’t have its own power. Peter’s relationship with his wife Hilde, played with a mix of life-loving exuberance and steely righteousness by Holly Gauthier-Frankel, puts the dilemma in a more immediately human context. There’s a clever, visually striking turn from Laura Mitchell as a kind of vaudevillian cross between Cabaret’s MC and Lear’s Fool. She plays Karla, a sardonic besuited performer who dares don a Hitler moustache for a skit and aches to raise the alarm during the imminent performance for visiting dignitaries.
And then there’s Judi, sensitively played by Romi Shraiter, whose teenage rebelliousness expresses itself, alarmingly enough, in wanting to leave the relative security of Theresienstadt so as to join her parents in the east, unaware, as she is, as to what this really means.
Diana Uribe’s set design places these characters against a backdrop of hanging clothes which bring to mind the awful exhibitions of abandoned items in Holocaust memorials, while the floor, a sea of screwed up paper, evokes the reduction of countless lives to bureaucratic statistics – and perhaps also the counterfeit letters of reassurance that kept the illusion going.
The Covenant, which won the first prize in the Canadian Jewish Playwriting Competition, is the latest from Montreal company Theatre Oeust End. Skilfully directed by Murdoch Schon, it ends on Dec 3 and is well worth catching.
The Covenant plays from Nov. 15 to Dec 3, 20222, at Segal Centre Studio, Montreal