Even before the actors enter, the set makes a simple, eloquent statement: 12 chairs seated around the perimeter of the playing space, one draped with colored fabric, and on the upstage wall, projected over four large screens, a photo from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum of smiling youngsters in tattered winter clothes. The empty chairs and vintage photo form a kind of memorial to the children of Terezin, whose words and pictures are about to fill the stage.
Terezin was a walled garrison town northwest of Prague that was converted by the Nazis to a "transit camp" in 1941. An estimated 150,000 Jews were transported there from Czechoslovakia, Germany, Poland and other European countries between 1941 and 1945. Most stayed for one or two years before being sent to Auschwitz or dying from malnutrition or disease. Among them were 15,000 children, only 100 of whom survived. These boys and girls left a now-famous legacy: thousands of poems, letters and paintings which were preserved by the State Jewish Museum in Prague and later collected in a book, I Never Saw Another Butterfly.
Culture was highly valued among the prisoners of Terezin, despite inhuman living conditions. Friedl Dicker-Brandej-sova, one of many artists and writers imprisoned there, is credited with teaching art to the children, for whom such classes must have been therapeutic. Art -- drawing, writing, singing, fantasizing -- was their only defense. It offered them a way to record the misery they witnessed every day: "We don't see blood here. Nothing, only silent hunger." It gave them a place to cry out: "If in barbed wire flowers can bloom, why can't I? I will not die!" It even provided them, however fleetingly, a chance to contemplate beauty: "The dandelions call to me/And the white chestnut branches in the court/Only I never saw another butterfly."
UVM's Remember the Children: Terezin is a new adaptation of Butterfly, developed in collaboration with a student cast by guest director Veronica Lopez. While the production suffers from the occasional disconnect -- its structure is so elegant that it distances us from the horrors that are being evoked -- Lopez's approach, in its simplicity, meets the most crucial challenge: letting the children's voices be heard.
As the performance begins, the lights go down and we hear recorded sounds of youngsters at play, giggling and shouting. When the stage is illuminated again, the actors --10 women, two men -- are seated in the chairs. They're wearing contemporary street clothes in shades of gray and blue that are much more muted than the bright reds and yellows in the children's paintings we see on screen.
One by one, each member of the cast stands and recounts an aspect of Terezin history from Jiri Weil's epilogue to Butterfly: how "men in uniform held meetings" to decide that this 18th-century fortress should be turned into a "false town," a "stopping place on the road to death." Then a call-and-response begins, a series of sentences that begin with the ensemble saying, "They saw ," followed by a single voice listing what the children witnessed and imagined.
A continuous flow of movement leads seamlessly into a playful folk dance, which also serves as a way of moving the chairs into position as set pieces. The flow is interrupted by the sound of shattering glass and jackboots, then blackout.
The elements that make this opening sequence a success carry through the entire production: the cohesiveness of the ensemble, smartly crafted transitions, carefully selected sound effects, the subtle impact of Jeff Modereger's set, Martin Thaler's costumes and lighting by John Forbes.
Lopez is particularly good at modulating rhythms. One of the most powerful moments is the ensemble's rendition of the poem "I Am a Jew and Will Be a Jew Forever," written by a boy who was deported to Terezin at age 10 and killed at Auschwitz at 11 a year later. It begins quietly, then escalates in volume, speed and frenzy of movement to become a declaration of defiance.
The cast does equally well in a sequence with no words at all: Clicking their fingers, then slapping their thighs, then stomping their feet, they recreate in unison the sound of a rainstorm from first sprinkles to final downpour. The children's game, which also serves as a metaphor for looming disaster, culminates in a huge recorded thunderclap.
Music, both live and recorded, is cannily chosen, and used with particular grace in quiet moments. The piercingly sweet voice of a young woman singing a Jewish lullaby is the only sound in a tableau of otherwise silent anguish -- a woman rocking in pain, mothers watching over dying children. Ensemble members play imaginary pianos as they recite a child's joyous poem about listening to pianist Gideon Klein, who was imprisoned at Terezin and executed at Auschwitz at age 26. During the reading, we hear a recording of one of his actual performances.
Despite the emphasis on ensemble, each individual actor in Remember is still allowed to project a distinctive identity. And that's important, because it's often when the actors break out from the crowd to go solo that the children's words register most strongly. "I Am a Jew " derives its initial power from the fury of Jennifer Moulton. Jason Turk channels the sweet, unadorned directness of a child without trying to be a child. This gives even greater poignancy to a passage in which he conveys a boy's eagerness to meet the latest arrivals in camp.
Hearing-impaired actress Laura Siegel combines expressive signing with a mobile face; a poem about an elderly prisoner -- "my poor old graybeard" -- is even more riveting because of her quick, vivid delineation of the old man.
The rest of the ensemble also uses American Sign Language at certain moments, repeating signed words and phrases of Seigel's and stretching them into almost dancelike movement. "I look into the wide distant world," begins one passage of great longing; the ASL gestures help express the desire for a life that is no longer within reach.
Occasionally, Lopez's actors become over-emphatic, as if trying too hard to show us how much they empathize with the children's pain. For the most part, understatement serves these writings better. A case in point is the segment describing the most absurd period in Terezin's history, when the Nazis spruced up the ghetto in 1944 to convince visitors from the International Red Cross that it was not a concentration camp but a model "Jewish settlement region."
Lauren Stoler and Moulton nicely underplay the bemused reactions of the savvier children to the new street signs and the ersatz school, with its "Holidays" notice posted outside to explain the lack of students. And Courtney Anderson is heartbreakingly gullible, wondering whether these improvements mean that "perhaps we don't even know how good the situation here is."
The situation, of course, did not get better. And art offered, finally, no defense. But the words and pictures the children left do two things: They convey in sometimes surprisingly sophisticated imagery the harsh realities of life in a concentration camp, and they testify to the irrepressible human need to create, to communicate, and, most touchingly under the circumstances, to hope. In remembering the children of Terezin, UVM's production honors them.