They were Jews who had been forced into an overcrowded ghetto that would become more crowded as time passed.
Some would be forced on a train, maybe even the day after a harrowing performance of “Harlequin in the Ghetto.” And they never knew where that train was going.
So, they chose rehearsals and performances over worrying, but the uncertainty still lingered, just as it does in the devised parts of the LSU Theatre’s production of “Harlequin in the Ghetto.”
This free production runs Tuesday and Wednesday in the Studio Theatre in LSU’s Music and Dramatic Arts Building. It’s called a devised play because of the process students in Allen Sikes’ seminar class used to construct it.
These students are in the same age range as the young thespians who devised the original play while living in the Jewish ghetto at Theresienstadt in the Czech Republic during World War II. The Nazis rounded up some 40,000 people and stuffed them in an area designed to accommodate 7,000 while propagandizing the Theresienstandt — commonly known as Terezin — ghetto as a happy resort.
They advertised it as a place where the Jewish people could live normal lives, where they could work and enjoy leisure activities, such as music and theater.
“The Jewish people were hoping it would be a place where they could survive the war,” said Sikes, an assistant professor in the LSU School of Theatre. “They worked all day, and there had to be something to do at night. So they staged plays.”
Sikes scheduled the seminar class after collaborating with colleague Lisa Peschel, a lecturer in the Department of Theatre, Film and Television at the University of York in the United Kingdom. The two attended graduate school together, and Peschel began writing articles on theatrical performance in Terezin.
She recently received a grant from Great Britain to stage a festival at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where she earned her bachelor’s degree.
Sikes’ class will bring “Harlequin in the Ghetto” to the festival for one performance.
First, though, LSU will be the setting for this political comedy and the devised sections the students added, which include characters representing Terezin survivors looking back on their experiences and their hopes of survival.
“Ironically, this play was aimed at the politics and economy, not the antisemitism,” Sikes said. “It was a given that they were there because of antisemitism, so they tackled the sources of this problem through their plays.”
Peschel spent three weeks working with the group.
“She said, ‘Do you realize you’re about the same age?’ ” said Kendall Krebsbach, a 19-year-old sophomore theater major from Pineville. “That made us think. This class was as much a history class as it was a theater class. There were times we had to stop and talk about what was happening during the Holocaust.”
Children and the elderly often were transported out early with the false promise of going somewhere better.
“If you were younger and could work, then you survived longer,” Sikes said. “They would use you until they could wear you out. Many of the Jews in Terezin were sent to Auschwitz.”
But some survived, and Peschel interviewed as many as she could, collecting their plays along the way. “Harlequin in the Ghetto” was revived in 1975 as part of an anniversary celebration of the communist regime’s takeover of what was then Czechoslovakia.
“All but five pages of the play was there,” Sikes said. “So, we had to devise what happened in those missing pages.”
The play was written by Zdnek Jelinek and is performed in commedia dell’arte style, asking a question of urgent interest to everyone there: Would Harlequin, the lovable clown, escape the clutches of the brutal Capitano?
“Commedia was a popular form of theater, and it always had set characters,” Sikes said. “Harlequin was one of them.”
Still, even when generating laughter, a sense of dread still loomed over the performance, for even the actors didn’t know if they would be sent elsewhere the next day.
“It was an escape for them,” said Dexter Ellis, a 23-year-old senior theater major from Baton Rouge. “They were leading these seemingly normal lives, and the Nazis created this fake hope. I didn’t know about this until I took the class.”
Students had to apply for the class during the fall semester. Those chosen not only are acting in the play but are putting the entire production together, much in the same way the Terezin actors did.
“We talked a lot about the use of comedy during this serious time and how they used it to poke fun at their struggles,” Krebsbach said. “They were living in an illusion, and this is an inspiring look at how they used theater.”
It’s also been an opportunity for the LSU students to put themselves in the shoes of their Terezin counterparts.
“It’s something to think about,” Krebsach said. “Hopefully, the audience will think about that, too.”