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O.C. Theater Review : ‘Playing for Time’: Music to Combat Nazi Horrors

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There probably could not be a better play than Arthur Miller’s “Playing for Time” to commemorate the ultimate horror of the Holocaust, especially on Yom HaShoah, the Jewish Day of Remembrance of those tragic years.

Miller’s stage adaptation of his screenplay is based, like the film, on the book by French singer Fania Fenelon, about her years at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

This quite capable production of the play, which inaugurates the Jewish Community Center of Orange County’s Menorah Theatre at its new home at the Jewish Federation Campus, shows both the uncomfortable disadvantages and the unconquerable power of Miller’s work.

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It remains a television film script, with its brief scenes, its inclination to bounce around to various locales, and the inherent difficulty of staging it in any space, particularly a level-floored auditorium with its inevitable sight problems.

Director Peter Henry Schroeder takes full advantage of every staging possibility, using the stage for the major scenes and employing the aisles freely for large movement scenes that pull the audience into the action.

He also handles a cast of more than 40 actors of widely varying skill, both professional and non-professional, with a wisely even-textured tone that generally gives the production a high gloss.

If along the line there are flaws in performance, the central figures are strongly outlined, and the drama itself retains a sense of reality in its remembrance that keeps the echoes of the Holocaust resounding. Its action is played out from the time that Fenelon boards a camp-bound boxcar in Paris to the moment of the liberation, when she’s in another boxcar bound from Auschwitz back to Germany.

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Part of that reality comes from the taut, nervous and totally honest performance of Robin Dunne as Fenelon. Watching her assurance slowly disintegrate, until she can no longer think even of eating, by itself hammers home the feeling of hopelessness coupled with unreasoning hope that informed the lives, hearts and minds of Fenelon and her associates.

Immediately upon her arrival at the camp, she was requisitioned for the camp’s female band, led by Gustav Mahler’s niece, Alma Rose. She drags a new acquaintance, the naive Marianne, into the group with her. It is the orchestra that lets them survive, for even the Germans like music when they’re not crazed by militarism. Hence the title: The orchestra literally is playing for time.

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Jill Weisz is strong as Marianne, both in her early scenes of frightened innocence and later as Marianne learns the lesson of bestowing favors on men in the camp in return for food.

Eliza Lorenz’s Alma also makes a vivid impression as the classically trained conductor, whose uncle and father left her a legacy of pride and confidence in her art that helps her present her totally inadequate orchestra in its best light.

As female German officers who hold tight reins on the orchestra, Penelope VanHorne and Frauke Bell provide vivid portraits. Though VanHorne is inclined to overdo the nastiness throughout, Bell’s gentle villainy is almost touching as it breaks down when the end nears.

In the immense supporting cast, Harv Popick stands out for his frightening aura in the small role of the twisted medical experimenter Dr. Mengele, who wants to see how his insane patients react to music before they’re wheeled into the gas chambers.

The effect of the stage version always depends on the quality of music, which ranges from professional in some cases to painfully incompetent in others. Here, musical director Michael Voronel makes them all flow together with the charming balance that entertained the Nazis and distracted them, in a few cases, from their ultimate goal.

* “Playing for Time,” Menorah Theatre, Jewish Community Center of Orange County, 250 E. Baker St., Costa Mesa. Thursday and Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2:30 p.m. Ends Sunday . $10 to $12.50. (714) 755-0340. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Robin Dunne: Fania Fenelon

Jill Weisz: Marianne

Eliza Lorenz: Alma Rose

Frauke Bell: Maria Mandel

Harv Popick: Dr. Mengele

A Jewish Community Center of Orange County/Menorah Theatre production of Arthur Miller’s play based on the book by Fania Fenelon, in association with PHS Productions and the Actor/Artist Group Workshop. Produced and directed by Peter Henry Schroeder. Scenic design: Peter Henry Schroeder. Lighting/sound design: Matthew Schleicher. Musical direction: Michael Voronel. Costumes: Penelope VanHorne. Production stage manager: Michael Jay.

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