Not so the Media Theatre. Instead of the traditional, claustrophobic, small attic in occupied Holland, the Media Theatre, with its large proscenium stage, presented a dramatically different version. Walking into the theatre, one saw the ruins of the Thousand Year Reich collapsed, its grandeur reduced to its columns of pretentious greatness, looking like fake columns of neo-Greek theatre, hitting the audience hard immediately.
Unlike most other productions, which do not allow us to see the outside world, Jesse Cline, the artistic director, worked with an amazing team, including Temple University’s professor of design and production, Matthew Miller, to transform the stage into a world where we, from the very beginning, lived inside both a Jewish world and a Nazi world, with a gigantic German eagle dominating the background, hidden behind the attic, with Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” blaring from the loudspeakers upon entering the theatre.
Later we saw images of the Achterhuis, with its famous horse-chestnut tree. Graphic designer Chris Jordan did an excellent job in finding original black-and-white footage from the Third Reich, showing key scenes of German soldiers in uniform marching and singing, or refugees trying to escape an arrest, fleeing across the street, showing the horror of the Nazi occupation.
These historical black-and-white films and images all brought a tremendous amount of tension and reality into the hiding space, something that we, the audience, could see and hear, unlike the Jewish people hiding in the attic who could only sense the force of the outside world.
As a result of this multi-dimensional approach, this production hit very hard.
The artistic director chose Matthew Miller because of his outstanding track record, including several designs for different “Anne Frank” productions. Large proscenium stages like that of the Media Theatre tend to make it difficult to present an intimate, claustrophobic setting for the Amsterdam attic because of the distance from the audience. However, the production team solved this problem by bringing the platforming of the set out into the audience about eight feet.
In an interview, Miller talked about the collaborative process at the Media Theatre: “We wanted to stress the despair and blandness of the life of the annex occupants. Early on in the process, we knew we wanted to eliminate walls to expose the outside world which plays heavily into the lives of the Jewish refugees. Though there are some limited comforts of home inside the annex, the outer reality is constantly referenced. Seeing through the physical frame allows the external tension and reality to infiltrate the hiding space in Amsterdam.”
A friend of mine who loved the show told me that she wished she could have seen the background projections more, rather than only parts of them because of the construction of the stage. Miller explained that this obstructed view is related to Anne’s personal experience inside the attic, and that the audience, like those in hiding, were prevented from seeing the full picture:
“The outside world, though referenced, was seen very little by the inhabitants of the annex. There were windows, but mostly covered. Anne describes seeing the tree out back and the clock-tower as the only ways to tell time and season. The fact that the audience had to look through the beams and levels is similar to being locked behind a fence of a prison camp, the gaps in wooden planks on a box car, or peering through the skylight of the annex.”
To enhance the architecture of evil and despair, original graphics and films from the Third Reich were rear projected onto the screen during certain moments of the play. Miller reported, “We were invested together as a team with the technical staff of Rob White (Technical Director), Robert Towarnicki (Production Manager/Carpenter/Painter), Nicole Carroll (Scenic Artist), and the artistic team under the leadership of Jesse Cline.”
Similarly, the layered and changing costuming, showing the refugees looking slimmer and skinnier throughout the play, created by K. Whitney Rogers, assisted by Whitney Rayl; and the period-appropriate props presented by Allison Ward, added to the authenticity of this production.
The at times eerie lighting design by Troy Martin O’Shia expressed the mood of each scene. And the chilling soundscape by Carl Park, including historic World War II radio broadcasts, alerting listeners to the Allied liberation of Holland, France, and the whole of Europe on D-Day, together with ominous siren alerts—all contributed to the vacillating atmosphere of this production, reflective of the emotional roller coaster of the characters in this deeply moving play.
Playing Anne Frank represents one of the most demanding tasks for any young person, not just because she is one of the world’s most famous tragic figures, the most recognizable icon of the Holocaust, but because Anne Frank shows an extraordinarily wide range of emotions and thoughts, going way beyond the average experience of a modern, young, American teenager.
Anastasia Korbal, a 14-year-old actress with several national tours to her credit, who once was described as a “scrappy and cute Molly” in “Annie,” the musical, now faced the difficult task of presenting the complexity of Anne Frank. Under the guidance of the artistic director and with the help of her stage sister Margot (Dana Gitlin), she entered the Jewish world and transformed herself into a regular human being, not a heroine, not a saint, not even an angst-driven mensch, but the bright and well-meaning girl next door.
Throughout the play, Otto Frank (played by Paul Dake, actor at the Media and the Montgomery Theater), the head of the Frank family, acted as a polite, gentle, and unobtrusive father whose education and impeccable German business manners did not allow him to show many emotions. However, in the very last scene, when he returned from Auschwitz as the only living survivor of all the refugees that had cramped into the Amsterdam annex, holding his daughter’s diary in his hands, we saw a different father: a man who allowed himself to get in touch with his feelings, making many people in the audience cry with him.
When Otto Frank gave his daughter a diary on her 13th birthday in 1942, about three weeks before the family was forced into hiding, he had no idea that this little gift would grow into one of the world’s most widely read books. Because Anne was very protective of her writing, nobody knew exactly what she had written.
Even Miep, Mr. Frank’s secretary, who found the diary after the arrest and deportation of the refugees, never read it, and later admitted that she would have destroyed it had she known the content, as she did not want her network of underground helpers to get caught by the occupying force in Holland.
Upon his return from Auschwitz, Mr. Frank was the first person to read the entire diary, and while he liked it, he was too embarrassed to have any critical references published about his wife, Edith, and any sexual references to his daughter’s own life. Therefore, the first version of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” published in Amsterdam as “Het Achterhuis” in 1947, is a censored, bowdlerized version. Anyone tasked with playing Anne’s mother most likely is struggling with the portrayal of a woman who was badly misunderstood by her adolescent daughter.
Margaret DeAngelis, who acted in the 2008 film, “Catch Your Mind,” did not play the unpleasant mother hated by her daughter, but a woman who cared and simply was misunderstood. For example, whenever she tried to help her daughter get dressed, Anne automatically rejected her by pushing her away. Like her emotionally torn daughter, DeAngelis as Edith Frank struggled with different emotions and allowed us to see her as another mensch.
Few people in this production have undergone as much a transformation as Dana Gitlin, an attractive young dancer at the Koresh Dance Center, speaker of Hebrew, and a senior at New York University, pursuing a Bachelor of Music degree. She played Anne Frank’s sister, Margot, most convincingly as a frumpy, bespectacled, Jewish bluestocking who always did the right thing and became a kind of anchor in Anne Frank’s life.
Every move of hers, every gesture, made her almost saint-like. Margot, a German student who had moved to the top in a Dutch Lyceum, full of hope for the future, walked around the annex with great care and support for everyone. Gitlin played Margot so convincingly that her arrest and deportation to several death camps became unbearable.
Scott Langdon, who appeared in theaters around the world for over 30 years, and co-starred in the 2009 film “Shadows,” an experienced actor with a voice that filled the Media Theatre powerfully throughout the whole play, proudly announced on his resume that he has been “finger printed and background checked” by the state of New Jersey for his teaching certificate.
Ironically, he plays the role of Mr. van Daan who, in one of the most pivotal, shocking scenes, is seen in the middle of the night, stealing the little bread left for everyone’s survival, stuffing himself silly with it, and, when caught, initially denies it. This breach of trust and act of communal betrayal angers Mrs. Frank so much that she insists that he and his family move out of the hiding space at once. Langdon portrayed this fall of a solid family man to an anti-social thief most convincingly.
When the beautiful and well-manicured Mrs. van Daan arrives, wearing a fur coat, joining the other Jewish refugees in the annex, her stage presence transforms the little hiding place into a stage of her own. One knows right away that we’re dealing with a complex woman who is hanging onto her moldy fur coat for dear life, as it is her link to her father and her wonderful past, at least in her perception.
Anne Connors clearly ravished this role, where she could flirt with everyone, showing her beautiful legs, moving around in erotic ways, almost like a tigress who fought to the end for her animal coat not to be taken away from her.
Connors has performed in over 100 different productions, including television shows like “All My Children,” and films such as “A Chorus Line.” Every single move of hers on stage showed the elegance of a beautiful, mature, and experienced dancer, who not only tried to seduce Mr. Frank, but who encouraged little Anne Frank to become more aggressive in her pursuit of Peter van Daan, Mrs. and Mr. van Daan’s son, by giving her private lessons in seduction.
Peter van Daan was an earnest young fellow whose family, like the Franks, had moved to Amsterdam to avoid the Nazi oppression in Germany. According to his own assessment (“I didn't have much going for me on the outside”), he ended up as the only young male in the attic. Like many young teenagers, he wanted to be left alone, caring only for Muschi (“Pussy” in German), his beloved cat, which led to several hilarious scenes.
Austy Hicks and Owen Mannion alternated playing Anne Frank’s love interest. Prickly, plain, and passive, at least initially, each Peter slowly discovered an aspect of himself that he had not experienced before. First, the awareness that being Jewish in a hostile environment can be a tremendous burden, especially for a young person: “The day they made us wear the star was the worst day of my life. I'll tell you one thing. When we get out of here, I'm going to make sure no one knows I'm Jewish.”
Later, he slowly discovers that someone is interested in him in more than a platonic way. As a result, Peter experiences his own spring awakening: “I'm not miserable anymore. I mean even bumping into you on the stairs sometimes I feel (He stops.)” Both young actors gave the audience a chance to see the transformation from a big boy to a young man, struggling with new emotional and physical realities.
Playing the role of Dussel, the dentist, P. Brendan Mulvey, professor of humanities at Bucks County Community College, who appeared in over 100 productions, including the national Broadway tour of “Cabaret,” the “Standing Ovation” film (2010), and winner of the 2014 Walter M. Strine Award of the Media Theatre, brought an extra dimension to his role, thanks to his strong Jewish orthodox accent.
Friedrich (“Fritz”) Pfeffer, named Albert Dussel by Anne Frank, a German-Jewish dentist, was living in close quarters with all the refugees, even sharing the room with Anne. Peffer’s observance of orthodox Judaism set him apart from the seven more liberal fellow refugees and clashed with Anne’s unconventional views. Her energy and capriciousness grated on his nerves, while his pedantry and rigidity frustrated her.
Miep Gies, a patient of his, had introduced him to Mr. Frank, who, sealed from the outside world, thought it wise to have a medically-trained person in the annex.
ANNE. “Saturday, 1 January 1944. We've been here one year, five months, and twenty-five days. We're all thinner, paler and a lot hungrier. We've been plagued by medical problems—someone's always suffering from something—and although we can't call a doctor, our favorite dentist is never too far away.”
Less than a year later, Dussel, the dentist, perished in the Neuengamme concentration camp in Northern Germany.
MR. KRALER, THE EMPLOYEE WHO SAVED MR. FRANK’S COMPANY
Victor Kugler, named Mr. Kraler by Anne Frank, worked as a long-time employee of Otto Frank’s Opekta Company. In 1940 he became the director to save Mr. Frank’s company, now renamed the Gies Company, from confiscation by the anti-Semitic occupiers. Terrence Gleeson, assistant professor of theater arts and artistic director of the University Players at Neumann University, played Mr. Kraler with great dignity.
Because Anne Frank listed in her diary the names of all five of the helpers as well as their black market suppliers, Miep Gies, upon finding the diary, would have destroyed it during the occupation, had she known its content, as she later wrote in her memoirs.
MIEP, THE AUSTRIAN EXILE AND FAIRY GODMOTHER
Perhaps the most pleasant role of the drama is that of Miep (played beautifully by Sarah Lynn Dewey), officially the secretary of Otto Frank at his Opekta company, but in reality the good mensch, the fairy godmother, who seemed to have magical powers in providing the eight refugees in the attic with everything they needed. She became like a godparent who was not only the supplier of food, goods, and information, but she, like the ideal parent, seemed to have magical powers that kept all of them alive, both physically and spiritually.
MR. VAN DAAN. “When Miep comes the sun begins to shine!”
ANNE. “Miep always does everything just right.”
ANNE. “Please Miep, get me some starch. Some tea, some biscuits, a movie star magazine. Tell us all the latest news, Miep. Miep, Miep, Miep! It's a wonder Miep has a life of her own! Did you know she's engaged to someone called Jan? She's crazy about him, but terrified the Nazis will send him to Germany to work in a war plant. That's what they do with all the young Dutchmen these days.”
Miep Gies (1909-2010), an Austrian orphan, escaped the food shortages after World War I and ended up in the Netherlands where she grew up with a foster family. Her own deprivation and suffering as an exile shaped her life and gave her the courage to commit what the Nazi occupiers considered a criminal act that could have gotten her deported to a concentration camp, namely to hide Jews: eight in the attic and one at her home. She always insisted, “We're not heroes. We just don't like the Nazis. Anything about them.”
The role of the fairy godmother goes back to Greek mythology, where the Fates powerfully influenced the lives of mortals, spinning the fate of people while making predictions. Miep, who had done everything that a human being could do, even at the risk of her own life, unlike the all-knowing Fates, could not know what was in store for millions of concentration camp inmates all over Europe during the last part of the war, when she burst into the annex, full of joy and hope, tears streaming down her cheeks: “The invasion. The invasion has begun! Did you hear me? The invasion! It's happening—right now! You can feel it in the streets—the excitement!”
Her good news boosted the hopes of the Jews in the hiding space for a few more days. The shocking reality which followed has haunted the world to this day.
The only part of the play that did not seem to match the overall authenticity was the arrest. As in most productions, this scene bordered on the melodramatic and the predictable. Most American directors tend to fall into a Hollywood mode when SS officers and informants are involved in arrest scenes. The actors usually bark, “Raus! Raus!. Schnell, Schnell!”—rather than showing the much more frightening psychological world of those who follow orders, even if they know that those orders lead to death and destruction.
Media critic Neal Zoren pointed out that “Cline uses the offbeat to make their capture seems sudden and surprising. No sirens, lights, or even noise foreshadows the appearance of Nazis breaking through the annex door.” However, he also observed that the capture scene was long and brutal.
Neither the original version, nor the Kesselman rewrite, showed the normality, the ordinariness, the fleeting sense of common bonds of the arresting officers with the victims.
According to a definitive historical account of Anne Frank (Carol Ann Lee, “Roses from the Earth”), the arresting officer, SS-Staff Sergeant Karl Silberbauer from Vienna, Austria, part of the German Security Police in Amsterdam, asked Otto Frank how long they had been in hiding. Upon hearing, "Two years and one month," Silberbauer was incredulous. Otto then stood Anne against the wall with marks made that measured her height since they had first arrived in the annex. Upon showing the arresting officer that Anne had grown more, even since the last mark had been made, Silberbauer said, “You have a lovely daughter.” He then, together with his men, forced all eight of the victims out of the hiding place and onto their long march toward death.
THE MEN INVOLVED IN AUSCHWITZ AND HIROSHIMA
I still hope for a production, one day, where we see the humanity and ordinariness of people who, as cogs of a larger machinery, are doing terrible things.
According to Otto Frank, Karl Silberbauer, the arresting SS officer, had behaved correctly and without cruelty during the arrest. As a result of that testimonial from Anne Frank’s father, the judicial investigation was dropped. Silberbauer’s suspension from the police force was lifted, and he returned to work with the Austrian police force after the war as if nothing had happened.
This scenario contrasts sharply with Claude Robert Eatherly, the American pilot who contributed to the death and suffering of thousands of people in Japan through his involvement in the dropping of atomic bombs over Hiroshima, and who, upon realizing what he had done, felt terribly guilty, went insane, and ended up in a mental asylum.
The architecture of evil in Germany collapsed twelve years after it started in 1933, but too late for any of the refugees in the annex, with the exception of Mr. Frank. Together with her sister, Anne died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, two weeks before the liberation by British troops. And yet, Anne’s work survives.
We all left the Media Theatre with one of her most famous quotations hand-written up on the screen: “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
Thank you, Anne Frank, and all those who brought your life into our own world.