‘The last cyclist’ resurrects nazi-era
By MARILYN JOZWIK
Published April 6, 2019
“The Last Cyclist” is the epitome of hope and the resilience of the human spirit. Faced with almost certain death, a troupe of actors in a Jewish ghetto in German-occupied Czech territory during World War II rehearse a comedy to help them forget their dire circumstances. But the parody was too close to the reality of the day and it was never presented, the community’s elders fearing reprisals from the SS. As Jana, the narrator, in “The Last Cyclist” says, “The allegory, too explicit, never played.”
Presented by the Cardinal Stritch University Performing Arts Department, the show is based on an original cabaret written by Karel Svenk in 1944. Svenk was among the Jewish political and social elite imprisoned in the Terezin ghetto by the Nazis. In order to convince the Red Cross that they were being humanely treated, the captives were allowed to create and present concerts, cabarets and operas -- to put on a happy face for the outside world. In fact, many in the ghetto were starving, suffering from illnesses and overcrowding, and were eventually sent off to gas chambers and crematoria.
It is a somber backdrop for the play, directed by Mark Boergers, and reconstructed and reimagined by Naomi Patz. Svenk was sent to Auschwitz months after the play was performed in rehearsals, and the original script was never found. However, in 1961, Jana Sedova, the only member of the troupe believed to have survived, recorded Svenk’s play from memory. Patz based “The Last Cyclist” on the recollections of Sedova.
Before “The Last Cyclist” begins, we see Svenk (Joel Kopischke) preparing the “stage” for the night’s rehearsal. The large crates he moves about in the warehouse-like, makeshift theater contain costumes and props for the performers. As the cast arrives, they settle in and wistfully recount what life was once like for them. Elena (Marcee Doherty-Elst) complains about having to share her bed with two-other women in cramped quarters. Others talk about the meager rations, the crowded conditions, their ill health, how they once led comfortable lives.
Svenk leads them through a series of warm-ups before the show is rehearsed, as he presumably would with any other troupe. Then he reminds them that his comedy offers them the chance to forget about their hunger, their itching from lice and a whole host of other discomforts and that “the train to nowhere should be nowhere in your thoughts tonight.” And, he tells them, he wants them to make the audience forget also.
And so, with that opening – and that of the narrator Jana (Laura Monagle) telling us that she was the only one to survive of the troupe – the play within a play begins. It is a parody of the Nazi rule and of the Nazis’ obsession with ridding the nation of the Jews. In the play’s opening, Jiri (Randall T. Anderson), playing Hitler, is giving a speech, detailing the need to eliminate the Jews, whom he calls parasites among other things. Hunkering next to him is a young man (Andres Hernandez) who inserts the word “cyclists” every time Hitler says “Jews.”
And so, like wildfire, the idea of eliminating cyclists spreads as two lunatics from an asylum (Nick Narcisi and Maggie Marks), along with their leader Ma’am (Doherty-Elst), escape with their vile messages. Soon anyone even associated with a cyclist, or a cycle, is rounded up, with the lunatics proclaiming “death to cyclists” as Svenk pokes fun at the Nazi regime. Says Abeles, the gentle shopkeeper: “The lunatics have all the power these days. If I want to get anywhere, I need to be as crazy as they are.”
It is a not-too-subtle parallel to what is happening in the lives of the cast – there is a mock trial which blames cyclists even for the cold weather, there is banishment to Horror Island (some think they are actually going to a special place for cyclists). There is The Opportunist (Monty Kane) who sells life insurance to the unsuspecting and frames his neighbors.
There is the play’s central character, Abeles (Kopischke), who has fallen in love with Manicka (Monagle) and finds himself in deep trouble for simply fulfilling Manicka’s wish of owning a bicycle. His story, which is somewhat remindful of the landlady and fruit vendor in the musical “Cabaret,” is a touching reminder that the beauty of love can shine through even in the darkest hour. Like Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” Abeles, sensing that “the lunatics will get me for sure,” wonders as he rails, “Lord, do you exist?”
The humor is dark in “The Last Cyclist,” knowing what the actors in Svenk’s play were experiencing. The absurdity, the play on words, the occasional slapstick are all viewed through the desperate eyes of the actors.
This cast of “The Last Cyclist” put their all into Svenk’s little show – to consume themselves in the comedy and silliness so that the horror of their situation would have no place. Their pluck left me feeling their courage, strength and never-wavering hope.
This is a seasoned cast at Stritch, one that understood the idea. They had to create real-life characters transformed to their theatrical characters, bringing out their playfulness, anger and contempt, and then moving back into their reality with courage and resolve as they proclaim, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
I especially enjoyed Kopischke’s Svenk, the writer and director who becomes the unassuming Abeles in his play. There is a sturdiness, yet gentleness, about him that endears him to his cast and to the characters in his play.
Besides those mentioned, the cast of “The Last Cyclist” included Laura Ellingen, Leslie Fitzwater, Maggie Marks, Amanda Richards and Donnie Williams.
Set design and technical director Greg Kaye and costume designer Kristina Van Slyke have bathed the stage in neutral tones and minimal props. Yet, the performances were so lively they seemed to bring color to the set.
If you go
Who: Cardinal Stritch University Performing Arts Department
What: “The Last Cyclist”
When: Through April 14
Where: Cardinal Stritch University, Nancy Kendall Theater, 6801 N. Yates Road, Milwaukee
Tickets/Info: 414-410-4171; Stritch.edu/PerformingArts