With time on our hands, we are revisiting books and movies that may be seen in the light cast by the Wuhan virus or the lockdowns responding to it. Samuel Pepys’s Diaries, Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and Albert Camus’s The Plague come to mind. A stray reference to Anne Frank prompted me to pull down my copy of her diary along with Francine Prose’s excellent Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife this weekend. I wrote about Prose’s book after a visit to the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam a few years ago.
Just fyi, as they say, Prose devotes separate chapters in “The Afterlife” section of her book to the play and to the movie. She writes of the play: “The saga of the Broadway production of The Diary of Anne Frank is so rife with betrayal and bad behavior, so mired in misunderstanding and complication, that at least four books have attempted to explain what happened and why.” Thereby hangs a tale. I highly recommend the book, and not just for the tale. Prose’s appreciation of Anne’s Diary as a work of art her critique of “the afterlife” are worthwhile by themselves, as is her biography of Anne. All in all, a heart-rending book.
Park Square Theater is situated in the historic Hamm Building in downtown St. Paul. We’ve been to the theater to see the fantastic 1999 premiere (I think) of The Soul of Gershwin, by Mr. Ammo Grrrl, the famous novelist Max Cossack (Joe Vass), and to see the excellent 2011 production of August: Osage County, by Tracy Letts.
Park Square was set to open its 21st production of The Diary of Anne Frank to over 12,000 middle and high school students when Minnesota’s shelter in place orders took effect. “While not being able put on a live show,” the theater explains, “there was a compulsion on the part of the cast and company to share the play’s essential message with students, educators, and parents engaged in distance learning, and with a country experiencing social isolation and anxiety about the future in unprecedented ways. When it became clear that there was no way to assemble to record the staged version, the cast began rehearsing and recording a Zoom reading of the play. It was released on April 21, Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.”
Although the theater is only a few miles from our home, I learned from Terry Teachout’s weekly Wall Street Journal theater review that Park Square has mounted a Zoom production of the play. I had no idea. His review appears under the headline “Isolation as a Matter of Life and Death.” Terry writes:
This production…is in no possible way amateurish. It is acted by a very, very strong 10-person ensemble led by Sulia Rose Altenberg (Anne) and Michael Paul Levin (as her father, Otto), each member of which appears in costume in a separate Zoom box, seated in front of neutral-colored backdrops of varying shades. They speak directly to the unseen “audience,” using simple, sparing gestures but making no attempt to suggest physical interaction until the play’s climax, when we hear the sickening sound of Nazi policemen banging on the door to their hiding place. I don’t want to give away what happens next, save to say that Ms. Fenster and her ingenious colleagues have come up with what might well be the very first Zoom-based coup de théâtre, a scene of stunning intensity whose mere memory reduces me to tears as I write these words. To watch Park Square’s “Anne Frank” is to be given an exciting preview of what Zoom will make possible for other theater companies who are capable of using it with comparable imagination.
Because this production was to have been presented to students, it is now being webcast for free to anyone who wishes to see it, and can be viewed on the company’s website for the next two weeks (you can, however, make a voluntary donation to help offset the cost of the production). Rarely has a revival of “The Diary of Anne Frank” been so timely.
Directed by Ellen Fenster, the play is available online in the videos only until May 15. The theater’s page on the production is posted here. The Zoom effect is powerful. Altenberg is an utterly compelling Anne Frank. I have posted the videos below.