Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Applause! Applause! Review of The Lilliput Troupe at The Chernuchin Theatre (American Theatre Of Actors) by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Gaby FeBland's The Lilliput Troupe at The Chernuchin Theatre (American Theatre Of Actors) was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Lilliput Troupe
Written by Gaby FeBland
Directed by Alex Benjamin
The Chernuchin Theatre
American Theatre Of Actors
314 West 54th Street
New York, New York 10019
Reviewed 11/10/15  

The Lilliput Troupe tells the incredible story of the Ovitz family, seven vaudeville-performing siblings with dwarfism who survived a year in Auschwitz under the watchful eye of Dr. Josef Mengele, who protected his "collection" while studying and experimenting upon them. Dr. Mengele, who they called "uncle," gave them extra rations, built a separate house for them to live in, brought them gifts, and demanded they perform in shows and on film. He studied them and kept them captive for research purposes. As a result of having Dr. Mengele's "protection," all seven Ovitz family dwarfs (Rozika, Franziska, Avram, Frieda, Micki, Elizabeth, and Piroska, nicknamed "Perla") survived World War II, later returning to the stage to entertain future generations of fans. 

Structured as a post-war vaudeville retelling of Snow White, the play follows the Ovitz dwarfs as they set out on their journey from Rozavlea, Romania to perform in Yiddish theaters across Romania, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia as "The Lilliput Troupe." The name was an homage to the small but mighty Lilliputians of Gulliver's Travels. They wished to be known for their talent and obtained fame for their comedy and klezmer music at a time when many of their fellow little people in the entertainment industry were relegated to freak shows and circuses. While they continued to perform for many years by hiding their Jewish identity, they were unable to hide their short stature, which made them "undesirables" under Nazi ideology. As a result, they were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz.

The Lilliput Troupe was originally conceived by Gaby FeBland as a part of a playwriting program offered through the Theatre Department of Northwestern University. Alex Benjamin then joined the team to direct a workshop production featuring Northwestern undergraduates that was performed on-campus in Spring of 2014. A year later, Jack Eidson and Sally Lindel joined the team as Executive Producers to pitch the show to the 2015 Araca Project (an initiative of the commercial producing group The Araca Group), which is committed to fostering young entrepreneurs from Syracuse University, University of Michigan, Florida State University, Yale University, and Northwestern University, to give artists the opportunity to take on the full artistic and fiscal responsibility of producing their own work. The Araca Project is responsible for enabling The Lilliput Troupe to have its world premiere Off-Broadway at the American Theatre Of Actors.

Aaron Beelner commanded the attention of the audience with his charismatic portrayal of Avram Ovitz, the older brother, who also doubled as the Master of Ceremonies, the Huntsman, and Dr. Josef Mengele. He opened the show (set in 1946, a few months after the Ovitzes' homecoming) by welcoming the audience to "this temple of imagination," promising "plenty of wonder," and telling some basic jokes such as that his family is "undefeated at limbo." The entire talented cast (Hollis Andrews as Frieda, Aaron Beelner as Avram, Sofiya Cheyenne as Perla, Sarah Folkins as Elizabeth, Lauren Mayeux as Franziska, Laura Presley-Reynolds as Rozkia, and Caleb Tourres as Micki) then broke out into a song claiming that most of what they were about to say is true. This was a very catchy number that clearly exhibited the talents of composer Matt Deitchman. A similarly interesting song about love was sung at the end of the play. What was presented on stage between those songs was a non-linear, convoluted, mishmash of a story that unsuccessfully tried to present the experiences of the Ovitz dwarfs at Auschwitz through the eyes of a Grimm fairy tale, with Perla representing Snow White, Dr. Mengele representing The Huntsman, and Hitler representing the evil Queen. To say this "confluence" technique failed to portray a coherent storyline would be an understatement.

There were some interesting legends told of giants inhabiting the hills of Northern Transylvania (representing how the dwarfs probably perceived tall, blond Germans) and analogies made that would direct us to look upon Mengele's "protection" as more of how an owner would treat his "pets." Mengele was also given a funny line. When asked for more food rations, Dr. Mengele was reminded he "chose" the dwarfs, to which Mengele responded, "But you are Jewish; aren't you all chosen?!" Uncle Mengele disappeared one day from Auschwitz without even saying goodbye to the Ovitz family, which especially bothered Perla, his favorite, who attributed her survival to Mengele for the rest of her life, and "cried" when she heard he had died. She even continued to dream of Dr. Josef Mengele visiting her and bringing her the gift of a music box, with Snow White dancing to the music as the featured twirling balerina. The Ovitz dwarfs are the only family to have survived Auschwitz intact, which might explain why some of them continued to praise Dr. Josef Mengele for saving them. On the other hand, it also might be a case of their suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. 

The extraordinarily talented individuals in The Lilliput Troupe are living proof that people of all shapes and sizes can be great actors and performers. There is a real story here that needs to be told. The characters are all very interesting but the script needs to be rewritten. It would also be my preference for the story to be told in a musical format, with "Most Of This Is True" being the first number. My imagination is going wild as I write songs in my head for when the Ovitz dwarfs got accidentally shoved in an oven at Auschwitz only to be saved at the last moment by Uncle Mengele ("I Don't Need A Shower") or when the dwarfs were forced to stand naked on stage before SS officers ("A Little Embarrassment"). The potential is there for every number to be as offensive, mind-expanding, and entertaining as "Springtime For Hitler" from Mel Brooks' The Producers.

The Lilliput Troupe runs through November 15, 2015 (Wednesday through Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 2:00 p.m. & 8:00 p.m., Sunday at 3:00 p.m.) at The Chernuchin Theatre (American Theatre Of Actors). You can purchase your tickets ($25.00 for general admission/$30.00 for reserved seating) at 

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