2009 @ Lex-Ham Community Theater

Photos

Naomi Patz (front right) with the cast and crew at the final performance of the play at the Lex-Ham Theater in St. Paul, MN

Naomi Patz (front right) with the cast and crew at the final performance of the play at the Lex-Ham Theater in St. Paul, MN

Press

2009/06/05 – Lavender – Arts & Entertainment

An atypical view of the Holocaust emerges in the world premiere of The Last Cyclist, by Naomi Patz, based on the 1943 original by Karel Svenk. A play-within-a-play approach that spoofs the arbitrary scapegoating of cyclist heightens the savage irrationality in blaming innocent Jews for sundry socioeconomic ills.

Although Auschwitz looms as perhaps the most maniac of the death camps, the Terezin concentration camp near Prague was a ghetto for thousands of Jews, a prison stop before their departation to camps higher on the horror scale.

Patz shares, “The audience at Terezin that attended open rehearsal of The Last Cyclist, before the play was banned, laughed. And I hope that the audience for our performances here will laugh, too. But our laughter is uncomfortable laughter: first, because the situation in the play, despite its humor, is a protest against totalitarianism; and second, because we know the fate of the cast and its audience.

Director Adam Arnold sums it up well, in referring to Jews, gays, and the disabled targeted by Hitler, noting the peril when “other groups are deemed to be ‘lesser than.’ These groups were seen as inferior, and thus were stripped of many of their rights.”

The Last Cyclist is a unique joint effort by Lex-Ham Community Arts, Czech and Slovak Cultural Center, St. Paul Jewish Community Center, Slovak Sokol Minnesota, and Blank Slate Theater.

—John Townsend

2009/06/03 Villager – Lex-Ham revives death camp drama from ’43

Borivoj Abeles (Adam Dielschneider) shows the bike to Manicka (Shira Levenson)

Borivoj Abeles (Adam Dielschneider) shows the bike to Manicka (Shira Levenson)

There was an old joke among the Jews living in Europe between the two world wars about a conversation among three men:

First man: The Jews and the cyclist are responsible for all of the problems of the world.
Second man: Why the cyclists?
Third man: Why the Jews?

Karel Svenk, a Czech Jew who was being held captive in the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, expanded on that joke in 1943 when he wrote the play, The Last Cyclist. Theresienstadt’s inmates rehearsed the satirical comedy under the direction of Svenk, but it never made it tot he stage in Theresienstadt. Because the play portrayed the Nazis as morons, the Council of Jewish Elders in Theresienstadt shut it down for fear of reprisals.

The play has since been resurrected from the memory of a Theresienstadt actress who worked on the project, and on June 5 it will open a three-weekend run in St. Paul.

“This will be the first time The Last Cyclist has been staged in America,” said Urban Landreman, the play’s producer and the director of the Lex-Ham Community Theatre. “It’s funny and it makes you laugh, but then you realize, ‘oh, that’s right, these people are in a concentration camp.’”

The production is a collaboration among the Lex-Ham Theatre, the Blank Slate Theatre, the Jewish Community Center of Saint Paul, the Czech and Slovak Cultural Center of Saint Paul, and Good Samaritan United Methodist Church of Edina.

Rat (Richard Daly) tries to calm Ma'am (Kristine Holmgren) down while Celery (Eli Newell) is aghast at what he hears. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Rat (Richard Daly) tries to calm Ma’am (Kristine Holmgren) down while Celery (Eli Newell) is aghast at what he hears.
Photo by Brad Stauffer

Theresienstadt, or Terizen as the Czechs call it, was an old walled city about 40 miles from Prague. During World War II, the Nazis forced the 6,000 local residents out and moved the Jews in. At one point, more than 60,000 Jews were living in the compound. Though they didn’t know it, they were awaiting transfer to one of the Nazi death camps.

About 140,000 Jews in all passed through the Theresienstadt ghetto. Half of them were Czech, and many of them were painters, writers, musicians and other artists. Only 20,000 survived the war. Svenk was not among them; he died at Auschwitz.

The Last Cyclist tells of the inmates on an insane asylum who take over the world. Their dictatorial leader, Ma’am, one had a psychiatrist who stuck needles in her arms. This psychiatrist rode a bicycle, so the former inmates figure that if they can only get rid of all the cyclists in the world, their troubles will be over. The protagonist is a persecuted grocery store owner by the name of Borivoj Abeles, a Charlie Chaplin-like character who stumbles through situations that expose the absurdity of Nazi laws regarding race.

Lisa Peschel, a doctoral candidate in theater at the University of Minnesota and a Grand Avenue resident, brought The Last Cyclist to the attention of the Lex-Ham Theater. She discovered the play while researching her dissertation on the cultural life of Theresienstadt.“This is a community-building effort, uniting groups who usually don’t talk to each other,” Landreman said. “We each come to the play from a slightly different angle. The Czech groups are intrigued by it because it’s written by a Czech playwright. The Jewish community in interested because it involves their history. We picked it because it’s a damn good play.”

“The key to understanding this work is to realize that the actors at Theresienstadt were not trivializing their situation,” Peschel said. “The inmates were in a dire situation that they could not control, and theater was a way to overcome their fear of not knowing what was going to happen to them from one day to the next. Though their comedy was ironic and allegorical in form, it allowed Svenk and his actors to feel, if only for a few hours, in control of their situation and to make the Nazis look ridiculous.”

Mr. Opportunist (Jerry Harrison) gives a gift to Manicka (Shira Levenson), but her mother (Sherry Allen) disapproves. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Mr. Opportunist (Jerry Harrison) gives a gift to Manicka (Shira Levenson), but her mother (Sherry Allen) disapproves.
Photo by Brad Stauffer

The Last Cyclist has only been performed for the public once before. It had a short run in Prague in 1961 as part of the 40th anniversary celebration of the Czech Communist Party. The play was rewritten from the memory of actress Jana Sedova, who at the time was the only surviving member of the original Theresienstadt cast.

New York playwright Naomi Patz adapted the script for the Lex-Ham Theater. The current version is a play within a play, according to Adam Arnold, who directs the 14-member cast.

The Last Cyclist will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, June 5 and 6, and at 2:00 p.m. Sunday, June 7, at the Czech and Slovak Cultural Center, 383 Michigan St.; at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 11, and 2:00 p.m. Sunday, June 14 at the Jewish Community Cneter, 1375 St. Paul Ave.; at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, June 12 and 13, at Good Samaritan United Methodist Church, 5730 Grove St. in Edina; and at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, June 19 and 20, at the Blank Salte Theatre, located in the basement of the First Baptist church at 499 Wacouta St.

Tickets for the play ar $18, $12 for students and seniors. Call 651-222-7333.Peschel and Patz will discuss “The Cultural Life of the Theresienstadt Ghetto” in a free program at 7:00 p.m. Thursday, June 4 at the St. Paul JCC.

—Bob Gilbert