Everyone's a Critic, Season 2: Frog and Toad... And the Holocaust

My Critics Institute students got a real challenge yesterday: review Indiana University of Pennsylvania's production of the charming family show A Year with Frog and Toad, and then review Stockton College's A Comb and a Prayer Book, a first-person account of the Holocaust. So yeah, they had one helluva day. Here are those reviews (I gave the option of choosing which one to post).

What we'd like to know is this: what works for you and what doesn't. Pick your favorite review and tell that critic why you liked it. Find common threads that run through the reviews and point out who expresses those themes most successfully and why. Tell the students what you want from a review, and let them know if anyone delivered.

A Year with Frog and Toad

Robby Bassler

Wake up! Come on, hibernation is over! No it does not matter what your age is, because Willie Reale's adaptation of Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad series titled A Year With Frog and Toad presented by IUP takes both young and old on an adventure as large as your wildest imaginations.

We are going to start our adventure off in a waterfall of shrill trumpets, finger-snapping bass riffs, and synthesizers that outlive their reputation. With a little help from your imagination, bells turn into swirling leaves to create the environment. Occasionally, critters will sing along with these background beats, but you must watch out for awkward pauses before, during, and after these animals begin their swan songs. Fortunately the beautiful woodland voices cover up any murky water in the composition and you will be singing along with them in your head long after the adventure is over.

The guides of our adventure, Frog and Toad as played by Sean Barrett and Joe York respectively, outshine expectations from the most dedicated toad-toting toddler or teen.  They will take us through relatively simple book-cover set that is transformed by the imaginations of the animals and audience. The wise, dry-humored frog guides Toad, the physical, Chris Farley doppelganger as they fly kites, splash in a swimming hole, and bake cookies. You will surely learn and laugh along as the lanky frog and the large, loveable toad learn more about their unique friendship.

Wacky yet simple props give the illusion of magical flower-growing, springs shooting out of an alarm clock, and sponge sandwiches dripping water. Toad's polka dotted yellow bathing suit equipped with 1920's swimmer cap and an ensemble of doo-wop bird outfits of lace wings and a feather hat highlight the Dr. Seuss-like costume choices. The doo-wop birds fly in with the props or scenery changes to make sure that there are no pauses in the adventure.

No matter how great, an adventure is not complete without its precautions. On your adventure you must watch out because the poorly lit path equipped with purposeless spotlight-ningbugs may have you missing important moments in the show. Not even the brown blobs topped with a light bulb can help you as underdeveloped characters prevent them from ever illuminating the situation. You might not even be able to see the snail that will leave poor timing slime all over your knickers and slow down your journey to an awkward pace merely to sing about how everyone should take a "real good look at her."

Toad and Frog's platonic book-ending where they meet each other in their dreams and summarize the entire show might be the only failure of the script not to dumb down the message for kids. Throughout the rest of the adventure, you will be treated as an intelligent member of Toad and Frog's witty, vaudevillian comedy. So dads that would rather hibernating, use your children as an excuse to lick this toad and ride out the multi-colored shockwave of fun.

Mark J. Costello

Frog and Toad Not Just Child's Play

Mention "children's theater" to any member of the arts set and watch them convulse. The mere utterance calls up images of well-meaning but generally inept production teams staging concentrated saccharine on DayGlo sets. The fear is that easy physicality might trump complex story and that no thread, thought, or moment will last longer than 30 seconds. It's a rule that children's productions are little more than distracting chaos unleashed, because kids are dumb, right?

Absolutely not, booms the reply from IUP's Theatre-by-the-Grove. A Year With Frog and Toad is the latest volley against drivel in the war for legitimate children's theater. Sean Barret's Frog and Joe York's Toad guide us through a whimsical, musical world in which snails deliver mail, a protean chorus of birds croon in Andrews Sisters melodies, and most importantly, no one in the audience is talked down to.

A simple set (a storybook backdrop, a few sticks of furniture, and two white picket fences) allows for an expansive space in which magic can be made. And magic it truly is: IUP's production teaches that in a world where we value and care for each other more than ourselves, the things we want simply appear in the wings. Lovingly holding a flowerpot allows flowers to grow (quite suddenly!) and seats appear when tired bones call out to them. Frog and Toad's child-sized bromance envelops the stage in a magical ether where innocence is rewarded.

The show's tech aspects are at once its blessing and its curse. Spring-loaded alarm clocks and flowerbeds, sharply colored 1930s-chic costuming, and punny cookbooks ("Betty Croaker"--go ahead and groan) create a whimsy one settles into readily. Meandering spotlights, however, sometimes distractingly light up barren stretches of empty stage. The pit overpowers the cast often (especially Barret, when he slips into his low register), and one must endure uninspired, repetitive choreography during frequent musical interludes.

Strong performances save us from these wanting moments, however. York can pull laughs out of the audience simply by twitching his eyes or muttering innocent epithets under his breath. His and Barret's comedic timing fire with Annie Oakley-like precision. Veronica Wilt (at various points a Bird, Mouse, Turtle, and Mole) pulls at her whiskers or flicks her beak in so meticulous-yet-subtle a way that one, at once, notices the skill of the actress and senses the breathing reality of the animal. And, most impressively, not once do the performances push into condescension: at all points, IUP asserts complicated theatrical conventions (for example: see this man in a suit? He's actually a frog--run with it) and fully expects kids to come along for the ride.

Their willingness to respect child intelligence is rewarded in the formation of a well-rounded, respectable production. They have told children that it's okay to dream, to love simply, and to put others before all things.

Maybe it isn't really children's theater after all.

Connor Davis

Sweet, with an Excellent Crunch

"Crisp, but not overly brittle, just a scintilla of spice, and cunningly soft in the middle." Claims the delightful Frog as he relishes a fresh cookie from his pal Toad.

Coincidentally, Frog is also describing Indiana University Pennsylvania's production of A Year with Frog and Toad. Based on the classic children books by Arnold Lobel, this cheery musical chronicle the events of two best friends through one year. Warmly acted and agreeably sung, this production was as tasty and enjoyable as the first bite of a warm chocolate-chip cookie right out of the oven.

With Robert Reale's score, which ranges from brisk jazzy melodies to breezy country tunes, and Willie Reale's witty book the play has something for everyone. This is not your average children's play that uses witty dialogue to play down to a young child or over their heads. Under the delicate and careful direction of Rob Gretta, the small ensemble remains true to the script and does not favor an adult or children's audience. The show portrays a simple friendship that is strong and can't be broken in half like a cookie.

At the center of this production were a charming and playful Sean Barret as Frog and the sincere and sometimes doleful Joe York as Toad. Both embody their character fully, keeping the audience engaged through inside jokes, and amusing sight gags. The ensemble works hard, and seamlessly with the audience to tell a warm story of friendship and devotion.

If there is any burnt or overcooked element in this production, it came from Brandon Beale & Anthony Lombardi's lighting design. While creating beautiful atmospheric looks to Dan Iwaniec's minimalist set, their use of follow spots was the only stale part of this production. At times the actors were not in their light, and could not be seen by the audience. Not to pin all the blame on Beale & Lombardi, Gretta stages several scenes extremely down stage creating impossible positions to hang and focus lights.

Dan Iwaniec's charming costumes provided depth to characters, and caused the characters to jump out of the stage like a children's pop-up book. Carefully and cleverly detailed, the costumes gave each character their own distinct style. From Frog's sharp striped suit, with green leggings, to Toad's poke-a-dotted suit with converse sneakers, the costumes gave the actors another layer to dig deeper into their amphibian characters.

Zipping along at a quick ninety minute pace, this delightful musical comedy reminds audience members that simple is better. Many contemporary musicals today try and boast flashy technical elements to Wow the audience over, yet contain librettos and scores that are hollow and flat. A Year with Frog and Toad is consumed like a chocolate-chip cookie, delicious from first bite to last and profoundly memorable long after it has been fully digested. 

Valerie Gibbs

Is Spring Here Yet?

A lot can happen in a year, especially when you're hanging out with two energetic amphibians like Frog and Toad. Indiana University of Pennsylvania's production of A Year with Frog and Toad takes this classic children's story and brings it to life in a vibrant way. These two amphibious pals will keep you leaping with laughter through every season, no matter what your age. Who ever said there was an age limit to children's theater? This show definitely proves that anyone can rediscover their inner child and enjoy the innocence of a make believe world in which animals can sing and dance.

The five person cast took on the challenge of over thirteen different characters and performed a show enjoyable for the entire family. The girls of the ensemble sung as sweetly as any Lady Bird and had tight harmonies and full voices that produced the sound of a much larger ensemble. Sean Barrett (Frog) and Joe York (Toad) did not have to work hard to gain the complete attention and approval of the audience. They were engaging and easy to watch, and when they had fun, the audience had fun too. They had a strong connection and portrayed a lifelong friendship. They showed us just how fun baking cookies, flying kites, and sledding with your friends can be. Frog and Toad were best friends, and as we journeyed through the year with them, we learned more and more about what true friendship looks like. Though the story is technically meant for children, the script kept the parents in mind as well with jokes about the bird flu, the wittiness of "snail mail," and various other things that any child would probably not notice. There was something entertaining for everyone to enjoy.

Though the set was minimal, the costumes and props were more than enough to create the fun-filled atmosphere of this show. With the exciting little tricks of the springing alarm clock and the growing flowers in the garden, to the cleverness of using sponges for soggy sandwiches, the props added a youthful, excitement and mystical element to the show.  The vintage style of the costumes gave the show the feel of a sophisticated fairytale. The textures and fashions coordinated perfectly with the jazz era musical style as well. Even those in "the pond pit" were dressed to match. This show was unified across the spectrum.

The only thing that needed more attention was the lighting. The follow spots struggled to keep up with their actors and at one point, the audience members somehow became illuminated as well. The house lights flickered at one part too, which could have easily been prevented. The overall lighting was sloppy and flat and did not do much to enhance the atmosphere of the show. However, all the other elements worked so well together that I was willing to overlook the unimpressive lights and still enjoy an experience that had me ready to spend another year with the wonderful dynamic duo, Frog and Toad.

Nathan Taylor

There Could Be No Better Friend Than IUP

Frogs and toads and snails - oh my! No, it wasn't an aquatic version of "The Wizard of Oz," but rather Indiana University of Pennsylvania's production of A Year with Frog and Toad, a children's theater musical whose title couldn't be more truthful. Exploring the bonds of friendship, Frog and Toad bake cookies, ride a sled, and rake each others leaves as the seasons pass.

Even before the musical begins the audience is immersed into the storybook world of these lovable characters when musical director Tom Octave introduces the orchestral "pond." Though the set is minimalistic, nothing besides a few choice pieces are ever needed; the production is carried primarily through the actors, props, and costumes, a welcome change from the growing trend of spectacle heavy musicals.

Sean Barrett's Frog provides an air of cordiality without ceding any of the downright neighborly vibes towards Joe York's ragamuffin Toad. Their relationship was like a G-rated version of Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple;" despite the clear differences in their characterizations, there was never any doubt about how much each actor cared about the other - it was in their voices and physicality. Even with an over the top style conducive towards children's theatre, their believability never faltered.

Both Barrett and York utilized melodious voices that rose to the belting occasion when required. What was truly impressive was their ability to keep their respective character voices when doing so; Barrett's was deep and rich, while York's was more nasally and high pitched. The main difference between the two, and the divergence between a good performance and a great one, were their capabilities with comedic timing. While not awful, Barrett mistimed a fair number of his jokes which turned the show's intended steady stream of laughter into shorter gale force bursts.

Helping York with his masterful use of comedy were a plethora of props produced by Natalie Brown and Amber Musselman. Adding to the cartoonish nature of the show were their rather numerous creative devices; memorable ones include a breakable alarm clock that shot springs, a bed of soil from which flowers popped up, and sponge burgers which wrung out water onto the stage.

Supporting actresses Jamie Markel, Whitney Weimer, and Veronica Wilt made full use of Dan Iwaniec's inventive costumes that were quite congruent with the nature of the props.  With ears made of springs, shells made of blankets, and miner's head lamps made from plastic wine glasses, Iwaniec's design never showed a lack of ingenuity without impeding any functionality.

"A Year with Frog and Toad" is best described in the words of the titular characters when they sing "it's inconceivable! It's unbelievable!" The only thing they leave out is that IUP's musical is a whole heap of fun, unrestricted to age and guaranteed to make audiences giggle.

A Comb and a Prayer Book: A Survivor's Story

Shawn Arnold

"Survivor Story" Needs a Little Help

Okay, epic story, guys! Elizabeth Goldstein, a young Hungarian Jew, is uprooted thanks to the Holocaust. She embarks on a perilous journey from concentration camp to concentration camp. Along the way she loses most of her family, but refuses to lose her own will. She even manages to escape the bloody Nazi regime and passes down her story to her granddaughter. If this were a play, sounds like it would make for some assuredly gripping theater, right? Epic stuff!

Richard Stockton College's production of A Comb and a Prayer Book does not quite live up to this epic-ness. In an attempt to avoid a "typical" Holocaust play, director Pamela Hendrick decided to create a text-based piece stylistically employing chamber theater (think books on tape, but instead onstage). Although it attempts to send a clear message home, the end result of this "creative" endeavor is a muddy mix that has moments that stun as well as bore.

The piece visually nails it. Dan Wright and Chuck Cole's use of side/down light casts huge shadows and creates an ominous sense of foreboding. This is most intense when a Nazis' Greek chorus is rambling off a cacophony of legislation on the suppression of Jews.

The sound design by Jessica Schon includes bold and haunting choices. Most notably is a sequence where she uses John Hobbie's versatile set as a means to create sounds of a munitions factory. By hitting, scraping and slamming the set, the cast viscerally brings the world of the factory to life.

Pamela Hendrick's cast clearly brings the message home that the play is about preventing genocide. There is also an intense focus on presenting the source material as written. This non-traditional interpretation becomes old quickly, however, as the audience is hammered over the head again and again with presentational narration on level with Ben Stein's droning.

One would think that Hannah Hendry's Goldstein would experience a wave of emotions induced by PTSD while recalling her horrific past. Sadly, trying to find this development is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. Hendry's portrayal is monotonous, and in the few months when she is overcome with emotions, they disappear as quickly as they arrived.

Lauren Suprenant's young Elizabeth has more redeeming qualities than her counterpart. Yes, she does fall into the trap of monotony quite a few times when discussing the taking of her father, but her struggle with optimism is generally clearer.

A Comb and a Prayer Book is neither stellar nor terrible. Some brave choices that don't completely work might cost Richard Stockton College the patronage of the audience member who likes a more "typical" Holocaust play (a la Anne Frank or Playing for Time). However, those that want to explore a more presentational text-centric piece, it might be for you.

Amy Asendorf

When A Comb and a Prayer Book Are Your Only Hope

Family Separation. Back-breaking labor. Painful humiliation. Torturous starvation. And all because she was Jewish. A Comb and a Prayer Book: A Survivor's Story, as performed by the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, is an original verbatim theater production based on the memoir of Holocaust victim Elizabeth Blum Goldstein. Because the majority of the production accentuated the dismal trials of life amidst concentration camps, the display of Goldstein's miraculous hope and resilience served merely to remind us of the hope for human tolerance, but lacked a firm basis in reality.

Director Pamela R. Hendrick chose to utilize alternating patterns of narration, dialogue and dramatic action which produced a haunting rhythm to which the audience travelled alongside Goldstein. The use of overlapping served multiple purposes as the lines between Elizabeth Goldstein (Hannah Hendry) and Young Elizabeth (Lauren Suprenant) established a clear distinction between Goldstein's recollection and the interview between Goldstein and Shana Fogarty (Lauren Suprenant) at present. In addition, the overlapping lines of the Hungarian government officials, played by the ensemble, drowned the audience in a spinning whirlpool of hatred and fear. The nearly monotone montage of voices took on a distinctly robotic nature, completely unidentifiable with human emotion and empathy.

Hendrick also established the idea of rigidity within the lives of the Holocaust victims. The meticulously equal spacing between characters as well as the stiff stances of the Hungarian officials and camp guards suggested the immutability of Goldstein's situation. Ironically, the actors playing the siblings and parents of Goldstein's family also play the guards and officials who condemn them. This intriguing duality asserts that both sets of individuals are equally human.

Hannah Hendry provided a breathtakingly chilling portrayal of the disturbed Goldstein. Her rich Hungarian accent combined with her meek hesitancy naturally evoked pity and fear. It was as if Hendry were a hypnotist as the audience fell powerless to the horrors of her account. Each time she nearly stopped the story due to her fragile and painful memories was like a sudden return to reality. Unfortunately, the potential cathartic effect of Hendry's performance was hampered by her young counterpart, Lauren Suprenant. Suprenant ultimately failed to express the horrors of her own present reality as young Goldstein. In fact, there seemed to be no audible change in voice or physical change in stance and presence as Suprenant oscillated between her two roles. The calmness of Shana, the interviewer, seemed to carry over into Young Goldstein, the mildly disturbed, if that.

Due to the complete lack of comic relief, the closing of the production was only slightly palatable. The audience was abruptly shifted froma pathos-ridden tale to a sudden public service announcement: What can we do to help stop genocide? Unfortunately, it's hard to call an audience to action when they are overwhelmend by emotional hypnosis.

Nicholas Barilar

Holocaust Play Proves to Be Devastating

Three multi-leveled scaffold towers loom before you. The house lights slowly darken.  The ominous sound of a Yiddish tune on pipes is suddenly heard.The lights come up and the Brechtian A Comb and a Prayer Book:  A Survivor's Story plunges us into the tragic world of a holocaust survivor. Unfortunately, this production proved tragic as well.

It shares the story of Elizabeth Blum Goldstein who, after facing a brutal experience in six different concentration camps, tells her story for the first time to her granddaughter for a class project. We see both happening at the same time. 

I loved the set design by John Hobbie. It was balanced as well as extremely usable for such a stylized show. 

The lighting, by Daniel Wright and Charles Cole III, was effective, specifically, in the use of a projection that placed barbed wire across the entire stage provided a sharp jab to the stomach in not only separating the characters from the world outside the concentration camps but from the audience as well.

Perhaps the most helpful in the actual storytelling, though, was the combination of properties and sound designs, by Jessica Schön and Patrick Judd, respectively. When the set is pounded by billy clubs to create gunshots that create sounds that crawl over and through you like an ocean wave the result is chilling. Still, one of the hardest images to shake comes when the family is forced into labor and create, using the props and their bodies, the sounds of the factory. But, then there will be occasions when non-live sounds were used and they simply failed to have the same impact.

The acting was largely executed in a very unrealistic manner. These moments were probably the most effective at the beginning when laws regarding the rights of a Jewish person were recited in a chaotic unison. However, for the actual action of the play, it proved to be irritating because the best moments of action where acted realistically.

The cast comes across as awkward, however, the fault probably lies in the direction. It became very clear that what was and wasn't real or "in the moment" wasn't real because it failed to connect and just lacked life. Coupled with pacing problems, the direction was simply stagnant. Toward the end of climax-devoid staging, it all just seems the same, that being too long and slow.

The final scene between Elizabeth and her granddaughter are amongst the most tender in the show.  However, it moves quickly from actual action immediately to what could be described as a Brecht after-school-special for action against genocide. This is the moment when the playwright/director decided to hit the audience over the head just to make sure that it understood the message of the play. Thanks. We got it through the telling the story of a historical genocide through the eyes of someone who experienced it in a contemporary setting in a contemporary way. But thanks for making sure. 

Michael Cook

A Comb and A Lack of Justice Done

A Comb and a Prayer Book is a play about a woman revealing her experiences in the holocaust for the first time since the events transpired. This sentence seems to be the basis for several other books, plays, and movies. However, A Comb and a Prayer Book claims to be much more and falls short of those claims. The story is one of hope and the subject matter of the Holocaust is a familiar tale to many people who are taught not to forget the past. 

Before the play started, I noticed the unconventional size of the program and read the director's notes which stated that the director wished to portray the reality of the holocaust using Chamber Theatre (a style of theatre which seeks to use as much of the original text from which it was adapted) because every other play the director read resorted to expressionism or metaphor to convey this. However, upon viewing this play I would certainly say that expressionism is a large influence on the play. However, the costumes didn't lend well to either idea. The men were in costumes that suggested Jewish apparel of the time, but the female characters were wearing black leggings and jumpers, which could have suggested that the play is a memory, and some of the details of the memory aren't as strong. While some may argue that this was the entire point in doing so, it is also possible that it was entirely unnecessary. The music seemed to cut off the actors' lines at times and at other times it was almost overwhelming viewing the play, the acting itself was good and the actors had to play several different characters, changing many conflicting mindsets and personalities in a matter of minutes, and the lighting helped establish the cold nature of the Holocaust, and the warm nature of the family.

The story itself would have been worth hearing regardless of how its presented but I often found myself asking if the story was being dealt justice during my viewing. However, the ending seemed to pull me entirely out of the story and could've been a reminder that injustice carries on to this day, but instead seemed awkwardly executed and killed the mood of the play, instead of portraying reality it felt too much like I was watching a group of actors trying to raise awareness about a cause. 

While it was an ambitious first production, I feel as if this script has the possibility of being executed well, but for now that will have to wait. 

Peter Starr Northrop

A Comb and a Prayer Book and Not Much Else

Ah yes, the Holocaust. It was one of the harshest crucibles that mankind has ever had to endure. By now, we've all heard the terrible stories of that dreadful time, from Anne Frank's heartbreaking diary to the power and fury of Ellie Weisel's Night. The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey has tried to add one more side to this terrible chapter with A Comb and a Prayer Book: A Survivor's Story.

Comb tells the story of one Stockton grad's grandmother's struggle after the Nazis took over her homeland and sent her to concentration camp after concentration camp. It then goes on to tell very little else. In fact, by the end it ends up being very little more than an infomercial, listing several genocides that are ongoing asking the audience what they have done to stop the horror.

But, storytelling aside, this show looked fantastic. Set designer Jon Hobbie really accomplished something special for this show. His design is made entirely out of layers and stacks of skeletal scaffolding backed by grey scrims. This, paired with Daniel Wright's chilled lighting design really sombers up the audience even before the show begins. The whole thing is cold and grey--a cloudy December afternoon on an industrial beachfront. This spartan design leads to some incredible stage pictures. We see a whole family crammed into the cattle car of one scaffold while bright jagged squares of light play off their frightened faces. But these beautiful and shudder-inducing images do little to save the show from it's greatest flaw: the story.

The tale is told essentially through a 90 minute intermissionless monologue shared by Elizabeth Blum (Hannah Hendry) and her granddaughter, Shana Fogarty (Lauren Suprenant.) The show went live in the massive Fischer Auditorium, though it became abundantly clear that Comb felt more at home in a smaller space. Suprenant simply could not project to fill that whole auditorium, and Hendry did not fare any better. Their speeches took on a ghostly, distant aspect that made it difficult for the audience to make any emotional connection.

The show is more of a torture story than a survival story. Elizabeth doesn't tell us how she survived--she just shows that she was ripped from her home and sent to six concentration camps where the Nazis were very mean. Then she gets liberated. Then she goes to New Jersey. The end. The program tells a better story than the actual play, saying that Elizabeth triumphed over the holocaust--surviving and raising a family in South Jersey despite what she had been through. What I would have loved to see was a second act--where Elizabeth gets out of Europe, goes to Jersey (survives Jersey) and raises that family. That would make an audience stand up and cheer. I want to see the triumph, not just the mere survival of someone.

While Comb is a very important story, it simply does not tell enough of it to make the experience have anything other than a slight educational value. 

Jensen Toperzer

A Comb and a Prayer Book: A Survivor's Story

In literary fiction, there is an adage that one should always show, not tell - that is, a character should not simply state "I am angry," but show their rage through their actions and reactions. It is advice repeated to the point of near absurdity, but that does not change its relevance, and it is at this very task that Pamela Hendrick's adaptation A Comb and a Prayer Book: A Survivor's Story utterly fails.

There's a certain irony in this, as the theater is a medium precisely for showing, not telling, but many parts of A Comb and a Prayer Book feel like a book report rather than a play, with the narrators both seeming emotionally distant from their subject matter - a true shame, as the story itself should be incredibly moving. We speak here of a story about a woman who managed to survive not one, but six concentration camps, and who is alive to this day with grandchildren.

The primary problem comes from director Pamela Hendrick's choice to create the play as a Chamber piece. While the style has been used effectively in other contexts - such as The Grapes of Wrath - in this case, it serves to create a gulf of emotional distance between the audience and a subject that should, by all means, be emotionally raw. While the director's stated goal of neither sanitizing nor romancing the Holocaust is an admirable one, it is one the piece ultimately falls short of. Indeed, A Comb and a Prayer Book does feel sanitized. For example, there is one scene in which a young Elizabeth describes the horror of her first day at Auschwitz. A woman lay on her back beside the line as she and her family were shuffled through the gates, screaming - she realized, watching, that the woman was giving birth. The Nazi officers merely watched until the baby came out, and only then shot her dead, letting her suffer as much as possible. This is a scene that should be gut-wrenchingly powerful, that should induce a truly visceral reaction in the audience, an idea further punctuated by the dramatic change in the lighting from light to dark. Yet the way the lines are written coupled with a flat delivery mean that the scene evokes no reaction whatsoever. It is simply a fact reported to the audience, like watching a documentary or reading a history book, not a visceral, immediate truth of the horrors present in history. 

The ending of the play feels ham-handed, with the actors listing off modern genocides in an effort to brain the audience with the fact that the Holocaust "could happen again." But because the horrors of the Holocaust were not presented in a way that could evoke an emotional response from the audience, this list falls as flat as the rest of the production, feeling more like the sort of thing told to middle school history classes.

In the end, A Comb and a Prayer Book manages to do the very thing it set out to avoid - it sanitizes the Holocaust and worse yet, Elizabeth's story, turning it from a real account of a horrible time in someone's life into a dull diatribe about why one shouldn't commit genocide.

Kelly Wetherald

Operation Comb and A Prayer Book: Mission Failed

The Holocaust of World War II is an event that educated individuals cannot avoid learning about for we are bombarded with images, events and horrific details in American history classes nationwide. Nearly six million Jews were murdered, tortured and humiliated all to indulge the egotistical control freak, Adolf Hitler. Modern society knows this. But what about genocide in Darfur, Rwanda, or Yugoslavia, that was randomly mentioned at the end of the show? What about those people and their suffering? What about the confinement of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. If we are obsessed with the Holocaust because we as Americans feel guilty, then why aren't we creating theatrical pieces expressing other areas of humanistic suffering? As messed up as it sounds, our culture has become desensitized to the horror of the Holocaust. 

The main area I am struggling with was whether the purpose of A Comb and a Prayer Book: A Survivor's Story was to tell one person's history or to heighten awareness of genocide and humanistic cruelty. The play had an unclear objective and static storyline which in turn made the performance boring and unbearably annoying. To me it was just another attempt at making a Holocaust memoir that turned out to be an epic fail.

I cannot blame the painful performance solely on the actors at Stockton College, but I can however place direct blame on director Pamela R. Hendrick. In her own words, "scripts that attempt a realistic representation of the Holocaust are problematic because such an extreme event is impossible to recreate realistically in live performance." I wish that she actually took some of her own advice. There are certainly successful Holocaust survival stories that have been turned into books and plays. Anne Frank for example could convey a sense of fear, sympathy, strength, and most of all history in her memoirs. That particular interpretation was focused and knew how to appeal to an audience without being overwhelming. A Comb and a Prayer Book however did not.

Hendrick also chose to incorporate Chamber Theatre techniques while directing A Comb and a Prayer Book: A Survivor's Story. This technique includes using as much original text as possible while telling the story through a couple of main characters.  Unfortunately, Lauren Suprenant playing Shana Fogerty and Hannah Hendry playing Elizabeth Blum Goldstein's monotone vocal qualities, unmotivated monologues and lack of ensemble interaction put me to sleep. 

One positive in this production of A Comb and a Prayer Book was the technical lighting and set design. The use of top, side and blue light helped to create a somber, death stricken mood that the actors themselves couldn't naturally create. The lighting created depth, a sense of time and helped to make the minimalistic set spring to life.

The high hopes that I had for this production after their nomination to KCACTF were shattered within twenty minutes. I found myself longing for the end or at least for the nonexistent intermission to take a break from the monotonous one dimensional narration.

January 14, 2010 7:53 PM | | Comments (1)

1 Comments

There's an impressive amount of consensus in these reviews - I don't remember that happening very often last year at KCACTF.

Here are my thoughts:

As a whole, one of the things that stands out for me is the widely varied use of past/present/future tense in the reviews (even switching between cases within a single article). I know that at the festival it's a one-time deal, but IRL you'd normally be writing early in the run. The use of present tense (as in Mark's article) is most effective for me as a potential audience member.

Also as a whole, I'd watch the use of paragraphs. Reviews with several short paragraphs are infinitely more readable than those with one or more super long paragraphs.

Nicholas' hook was my favorite. A few simple sentences, and I was given a clear impression of the feel of the opening. I love his use of words such as "loom" and "ominous" in building atmosphere.

Overall, though, I would say that my favorite review of the set is Peter's. His review offers a clear and consise synopsis and description of format, and a vivid impression of the scenic elements. Also, the reference to "triumph" versus "survive" really helps me to get a feeling for where the show failed, without him coming across as viscious or unfairly negative.

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