The communal act of music making can be the most effective prayer for those deprived of hope. Just look at Terezin. Peter Brumlik, a UCCS history professor with family ties to this Czech concentration camp, offers us a gift by bringing to Smokebrush Theater his two one-act plays, The Verdi Requiem as Performed by the Inmates of Terezin, and the dark Irish farce The Pope of Camden Town, both directed by Peter Mathewson.
Terezin's story is immeasurably sad: Portrayed by Nazis as a "model ghetto" to persuade naysayers of Germany's good intentions, the whole camp was an act of propaganda. Despite a thumbs-up by the Red Cross in 1943, behind the faade Germans shuttled thousands to distant gas chambers. Meanwhile, a group of distinguished musician prisoners convinced commanders to help provide instruments for concerts inside the camp. Even these brave concerts, however, unwittingly abetted the march toward death.
There is enough material to fill an epic here: Brumlik's ambitious one-act tries hard to pack it all in, but ends up overly condensed. The action centers on the Beggar (David Mason), the play's narrator and borscht-belt life force, who pushes the stern composer Schacter (John Horn) to organize a performance of Verdi's Catholic Reqiuem. A few other characters pop in, but compared to the crowded conditions of an actual concentration camp, the minimally populated stage often feels sparse. Depicting more day-to-day details of the inmates would lend more dramatic weight to our hero's endeavors, but such touches are beyond the scope of this play. Rather, in order to move the story along, it shifts into a series of unsubtle speeches, almost every line booming with thematic or narrative importance.
To criticize the structural shortcomings of Brumlik's script is to miss the point, however. Taken on its own terms -- a home-grown labor of love uncovering a tragic period -- this is a fine history lesson. Ultimately, the irrepressible power of the story, and the sincere passion of its performers, overcomes its occasional clunkiness. By its conclusion, only the most jaded viewer will not be humbled.
A less reverent take on the plight of an oppressed people, The Pope of Camden Town takes us to WWI-era England, where Brendan (Mathewson), the paternal head of a dysfunctional Irish family, oppresses his own poor dependants with inflated, drunken rants about those "British Bastards" -- why remaining on the dole isn't laziness, but is actually a subversive act designed to deprive the Brits of resources.
We've been here before: Playwrights like Martin McDonagh already have a devil of a time capturing the cadences of Irish life without veering into sentimentality or posturing. Pope's characters tend toward stereotypes (do drunken Irish men really walk around singing, "Daye-diddly-aye"?) Still, after Brendan's rumblings have become tiresome -- his daughters, the lanky, hopelessly blunt zombie Erin and the hilarious poetess Fiona, have obviously heard enough -- in walks Erin's British beau Harry (Craig Richardson), an "Oliver Twist" headed for the war's front lines. That is, if he can maneuver past Brendan's gauntlet.
This is where the play really gets funny: Harry's hapless presence creates the possibility for mortifying embarrassment, and hence dramatic tension. Brendan's shameless scheming and inane Bible exegesis no longer bounce off his predictably tired family, but off a real target. A cartoonish fever ensues, and comic timing starts to flow.
There's no way around it: These plays are low-budget and not particularly slick. Still, I'm a believer in the still, small voice: In this case, Smokebrush provides us with a local perspective of mournful remembrance for the past. Whatever you've got, you gotta have the love. These plays do.
-- Paul Wilson