27 May 2006

Storybook Theater

Last week I saw Tony Kushner's adaptation of the Czech children's opera Brundibar and his original one-act curtain raiser But the Giraffe at the New Victory Theater. The New Vic books in some of the world's most sophisticated children's theater. And Kushner's work certainly qualifies as sophisticated. Some of that sophistication is more borrowed than created and not merely borrowed from Maurice Sendak's lovely and astonishing sets.

Brundibar comes laden with historical baggage, which But the Giraffe tries to elucidate relatively sweetly for the tween set. Originally written to be preformed at a Czech boys' orphanage, Brundibar would become almost exclusively linked to Terezin, the Nazi show camp used to trick members of the media and international community into believing the concentration camps weren't death camps. And Terezin wasn't. The various casts of child performers would die instead at Auschwitz.

The irony (apparently lost on the Germans, or perhaps not lost, but layered again with sadistic irony) is that the story is about the weak overcoming bullies. Our brother and sister protagonists are trying to buy their sick mother milk, but they have no money. Deciding to raise money by singing, they are bullied and forced out of the town square by Brundibar the organ grinder. But then with the help of some animal friends and rest of the town's children the brother and sister outsing and humiliate and banish Brundibar.

Like most operas (when you finally hear them in English), the libretto is repetitive and the rhyme scheme strained. There's a reason opera is traditionally in Italian: everything in the bloody language rhymes. But Kushner's attempt is as good as English translations I've heard of Aida or Magic Flute. (Pamino's songs in that - lovely in Italian TERRIBLE in English). So no faulting the man there. But he did write, in its entirety, the one act play But the Giraffe.

Like other writers (Carl Hiaasen's Hoot, Michael Chabon's Summerland, and Joyce Carol Oates' Big Mouth and Ugly Girl are just a few examples) Kushner's playing in kiddie-lit land here. Unlike them, Kushner's been solidly in the realm of "issue" (what school teachers everywhere consider the valuable part of children and YA writing) since the anarchist wrote Angels in America. In fact if you took the four and a half hour epic and cut the sex, drug use and foul language you would pro'bly end up with a one-act children's play.

The play is, for the topic, charmingly slight. A literate, verbose family rushes packing only things they can carry. The uncle wants desperately to bring an opera score with him, while the precocious girl wants only to bring her toy giraffe. Adults waft in and out reasoning, explaining, cajoling, everyone rushing off in a thousand direction. It boils down to the girl (the astonishing and extremely self-possessed young actress Danielle Fried) deciding to selflessly give up the space needed for the toy giraffe to instead carry the score. Threaded through with music from Brundibar and facts about the opera to follow (the Prague orphanage, etc.) it links well with the opera.

Then the banging on the door, the orders barked in German and the family pulls on their yellow starred coats. (No need to worry that the symbols will be lost on the audience -- it was almost entirely people over 60 without their grandchildren in tow.) Kushner's giraffes and Jews comparison (giraffes, like all mammals, have seven vertebre, but they're special because their necks are so different; Jews are just like everybody else except, etc. etc -- but he said it more poetically) is also perhaps a bit much for the age of the supposed target, but worked perfectly for the people who did show up.

But for all of But the Giraffe's sweetness, and for all of Brundibar's clunkiness, history won out over art. From the overture 'til the final curtain call of Brundibar I wept.


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