An Ottawa theatre company said it is setting out to prove it is possible to respect the realities of the Holocaust in the context of presenting great theatre.
The Counterpoint Players will present the world premiere of Corpus by Darrah Teitel, a play that has already won the 2007 Calgary Peace Prize, and the 2011 In The Beginning Jewish Playwrights contest sponsored by Toronto’s Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company.
Set in 2004, Corpus follows the story of Megan, a young genocide scholar who discovers an intriguing relationship between a Polish Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz and the wife of a Nazi officer, while navigating her own pursuit of academic recognition and a relationship with an online lover.
Despite numerous workshops and table reads at the National Theatre School in Montreal, the University of Calgary, Nightwood Theatre in Toronto, the Harold Green Jewish Theatre and A Traveling Jewish Theatre Company in San Francisco, this will be the first full-scale production of Teitel’s very personal project, despite its many public accolades.
For a writer whose scripts have mainly otherwise focused on feminism or sexuality, Corpus is the embodiment of Teitel’s deep connection with her faith and the struggles of previous Jewish generations.
“It’s about my Judaism and Holocaust revisionism,” she said in an email interview from Toronto.
“I guess that is sort of political, but mostly it’s very personal. I would say that, of everything I’ve written for the stage, Corpus is the most personally meaningful play I’ve produced.
“That is probably why I never just threw it up on stage at a festival. I’ve been waiting for 10 years for this production, and it makes me very nervous, but I trust Bronwyn. I think it’s a very personal play for her as well.”
Counterpoint Players director Bronwyn Steinberg strongly echoed Teitel’s sentiments. The production will be the result of a partnership between two women, who said they are determined to stay true to the script and tell the story of the Shoah in a respectful and meaningful way.
From the moment she read the script in the Winter 2012 issue of Canadian Theatre Review, Steinberg said she knew she would be the best person to direct the play.
“I could tell, just by reading the play, that our interests were very parallel,” she said.
Steinberg said she initially approached Teitel to work with her on Greek Culture, a previous Counterpoint Players production, and then asked her if she could direct Corpus.
“I could tell right away, after getting to know Darrah, that I was coming at it from a similar [perspective], and I felt like she needed a director who gets it and who comes from a similar background to her,” Steinberg said.
“I am fascinated by the way her script bravely explores the dangerous territory of fictionalizing and sensationalizing dark chapters in history,” she said.
“Despite the fact that my own life experience has been so safely removed from the horrors of the Holocaust, like Darrah and other Jewish people in our generation, I have been deeply haunted and consumed by a third generation version of survivor’s guilt that compels me to want to tell this story,” she said in an email, while on tour in Eastern Europe exploring her own family’s history and doing additional research for the play.
This confusing and consuming feeling of wanting to know more about the Holocaust separately disturbed yet linked both women as they each devoured as much historical literature as they could.
Teitel began writing the intensely personal script in 2004, and said her reasons for writing Corpus are strongly linked to her obsession with the Holocaust as a high school student.
“For better or worse, I became a teenage amateur Holocaust scholar and, as an adult, I have strange feelings of guilt and shame mixed into my academic knowledge of this terrible war,” she said.
“I judged myself for wanting to know these evils so intimately. Writing Corpus was how I examined my relationship with the Holocaust,” she added. “It was my way of expelling some demons and warning against the fetishistic fixation some of us have with dark history.”
Corpus cast members said they want to present an alternative to some of the Holocaust-themed films that have come out over the past decade.
“There have been a lot of films over the last 10 years that are sort of centred on the Shoah, the Holocaust, and it’s become, in a funny way, entertainment. While they’ve all been pretty good films, it sort of belittles, in a way, that whole history of what happened by reducing it to a non-personal [story],” said Corpus actor John Koensgen.
“When I read the play, it completely surprised me because … it’s a wild play. It’s a really wild ride, and it’s incredibly theatrical. It’s a fun piece that’s also deadly serious. The story gets revealed to you” in flashbacks, dream sequences, fantasies and, perhaps, invented memories, Koensgen said.
“You think you know what the story is, but it turns out to be something else,” he added.
Actor Laurie Fyffe agreed with Koensgen and said Corpus easily manages to respect the past successfully by focusing more on unique, personal stories and people’s interpretation of events instead of heavily relying on the numbers, facts and indisputable events.
“In a sense, it honours their suffering in every respect, because it makes us understand how everyone in that historical stream was an individual,” she said.
“It’s one thing to manipulate and use the past,” Koensgen said, “and another thing to respect the past.”
Corpus will run from May 1 to 10 at Arts Court Theatre, 2 Daly Avenue in downtown Ottawa. Visit www.counterpointplayers.com for ticket information.