Once upon a time in Nazi Germany

Gretchen (Anna Seibel) and Friederike (Jackie Block).

“Once upon a time” and “Happily ever after” — these phrases are not typically associated with the Holocaust. Yet so unfolds the storybook opening to All Through the Night.

The dark yet strangely whimsical drama is the latest offering from the Greystone Theatre, sporting an all female cast and a striking atmosphere.

“Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, there lived, on top of the mountain there – a mean old man.” These are the words of Ludmilla as she begins to recount the events of the dark cloud that spread over Germany before and during the Second World War. This jarringly childlike account of the Holocaust is responded to shortly afterward by a scene of the principal characters as girls in German public school already having the ideals of the Nazi regime instilled in them by seemingly innocuous shows of patriotism.

Already they show divergent personalities, with some interested in resisting the authority and others following it with unwavering determination. As the story unfolds, the women veer off in drastically different directions as they come to terms with how to endure in Hitler’s Germany.

“It’s about survival,” said director Natasha Martina. All Through the Night is a lesser-known Holocaust story; as Martina says, some people are unaware of how Hitler “sought the demise of his own people if they didn’t fit” — women in particular. Thus, the characters find themselves confined in this new regime that demands of them loyalty, child-rearing and nothing else.

Martina came away from her production of The Odyssey last spring with an eye to do something very different. She was interested in an all-female cast, because one had not been done in at least six years. She was drawn to Shirley Lauro’s award-winning script for its striking political subject matter and the challenge it presented to both cast and director.

The script draws from the testimony of actual women in Nazi Germany, and the actresses needed to do extensive research to develop their characters. Anna Seibel plays Gretchen, a young woman who becomes a staunch supporter of the regime and does terrible things as a result. Seibel took inspiration from an actual female Nazi prison guard who was executed at the end of the war when she was just 23 years old.

“As dark and as terrible as it is, it shows something about human nature,” said Seibel. “Gretchen takes opportunities presented to her.”

The action plays out within a minimalistic set, formed in the manner of a crumbling building, devoid of comfort and washed in despair. The lack of props enables a fluid movement of action as the lives of the women unfold in a non-linear fashion — what Anna Seibel describes as a “hopscotch through time.” She says the minimalist set design forces audiences to use their mind’s eyes, and “allows the images to come to life.”

The mixture of the bleak subject matter with what Martina very tentatively calls the “fairy tale fashion” of the narrative style creates an arresting and unsettling image. All Through the Night is much more than simply a depressing march through the Holocaust, but the audience will have to decide how much triumph they find in the story.

At its core, it is the tale of four innocent girls put in a bad situation, and the ways in which they branch out to try to make it through the rough years they face. The audience may or may not choose to sympathize with them, but will have to understand them. Martina said the underlying question the drama poses is, “Have we learned something?”

The title All Through the Night evokes many ideas, from the terrifying to the romantic, and many of these ideas sneak their way into the play. In one sense, it refers to how “the atrocities of war stop for no one,” said Seibel, but it also speaks to the women’s need to survive long enough to see the dawn of a new Germany.

The play is unlikely to cheer you up, but it will make you stop and think, which is something we all need to do from time to time.

[box type=”info”]All Through the Night plays at the Emrys Jones Theatre in the John Mitchell Building until Feb. 11. Shows are 8 p.m. nightly except for Sundays. Tickets are $14 for students.[/box]


Photo: Raisa Pezderic/The Sheaf