This is a beautifully staged, impressive piece featuring an all-Ottawa cast consisting of four superb seasoned actors and six very promising youths from the Ottawa School of Speech and Drama.
Janet Irwin once again demonstrates her ability to nourish a large cast production through workshops and rehearsal with a sure hand that guides the incredibly intricate elements of a production like this to the superb result that we have here.
Marc Desormeaux’s quadraphonic soundscape at times became its own moving story, particularly the sounds of birdsong and birdflight which developed into a very moving symbol of life and freedom.
Hannah Moscovitch’s script, which she developed through a workshop with the children at OSSD over the course of two years, layers anecdotes that give us a picture of the character of the remarkable Janusz Jorczak, a pediatrician in Warsaw, Poland, who established an orphanage in 1911, and with great compassion, worked with his children into the war years, when he was forced to move the orphanage to the ghetto. He stayed with his charges in spite of various opportunities to leave them until he accompanied 200 orphans to Treblinka extermination camp, and was never seen again. His orphanage still exists in Warsaw.
Powerful stuff. While the Holocaust is a significant but tiny part of this story, the script does not feed on it; rather, the script focuses on character: Moscovitch compresses time, using the stories of five of the children to represent all of them, from their first tentative arrival as uneducated, unwanted street waifs who are virtually catatonic or paranoid, self-sufficient or victimized, through their development of awareness and emotion and personal ties and even romance, stopping along the way to show returning adults who have succeeded in life. Jorczak becomes endearing and even humourous, as do the children. Although I found the opening scene somewhat tentative and a little forced, the action very quickly drew me in, and I was hooked.
Paul Rainville, one of my favourite actors, certainly has perfected his recipe for delivering an intelligent, engaging, powerful character whom the audience can totally embrace. His Jorczak drew the audience into the humor and the drama and the nobility. Every nuance rings true.
Kate Hurman, resplendent in a wonderful dark hairpiece, another of my favourite actors, gave us one of the warmest moments of the entire evening when Stefa goes to the photographer to have her portrait taken. The gamut of expressions that is brought on by the photographer’s suggestions was natural and wonderful. In a sense, her character is choric, because Stefa’s opinion gives the audience a measuring stick for Jorczak’s actions: her reaction to his decisions and pronouncements gives us a sense of whether he is being heroic or hubristic.
Peter Froehlich gave interesting and contrasting performances of two characters, one a great supporter of Jorczak, the other cranky pragmatist. The contrast is very interesting particularly since both sides of it were played by the same man.
I became an admirer of Sarah McVie’s work when I saw Swollen Tongues at GCTC on Gladstone Street. She does not disappoint here. In this instance, she plays two edgy characters— the unwittingly cruel teacher and a member of the resistance—and the straight man for Hurman’s Stefa at the photographer’s studio.
The six young actors in this play acquit themselves very well. They carry a great deal of the action with considerable skill. Louis Sobol plays Israel through the greatest character shift in the play: Israel progresses from sullen, disobedient, alienated to loving, enterprising and self-sacrificing without missing a beat. Leah Morris, who plays the violin live on stage remarkably well, also progresses from withdrawn anorexic mute to outgoing friend. Hannah Kaya, Juliana Krajcovic, Luke Letourneau, and Adrian Pyke also gave the play genuine, interesting characters, each with its own drama and humour.
Camellia Koo’s set, features a double door, a scrim, and multiple wooden chairs— several on stage to serve as beds and chairs, and the rest on on the wall behind the scrim where they could be highlighted, displaying symbolic items representative of the many orphans and situations that had passed before— all on a multi-tone gray floor. The door seems to be a nod to the door of the actual orphanage. Jock Munro’s lighting creates focus and atmosphere seamlessly.
Koo’s costumes, particularly the children’s costumes were very effective at depicting the period, the social circumstances, the country; but more important, they gracefully aged these children very believably.
The Children’s Republic works on many levels: the performances are all solid, we experience a range of emotions, the script focuses on the positive development of the orphanage and the children; but the ending of this poignant script fails. With the Nazis evicting everyone from the orphanage in the Warsaw ghetto, Jorczak gathers his faithful housekeeper and the heart of his 190 children into a group hug; and, very much in character, proposes that they walk to the sun. Moscovitch could have done so much more with this: the mechanics of the scene demand that this sun symbol be planted and developed in much the same way as she developed the sounds of the birds. Conversely, she had introduced and repeated Korczak’s love of a passage in the Kadish, the prayer for the dead. The Kadish theme went nowhere, but it could had been the foundation for a remarkable and evocative ending. She could have had Korczak recite that passage here, or use the voiceover of it, or had Moishe recited for him. Think of Meryl Streep as Ethel Rosenberg reciting the Kadish with Al Pacino as the despicable Roy Cohn dies in Angels in America. Had Paul Rainville been given such an ending, it would have blown the audience out of their seats. As it was, we had a striking moment, but a moment that felt manufactured as a parlor trick, because the walk to the sun has little relationship to anything else in the play except a tenuous link to Korczak’s fanciful imagination—hardly enough justification for the ending of a story that does need an ending.
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The Children’s Republic was co-commissioned and co-developed by Great Canadian Theatre Company and The Ottawa School of Speech & Drama
Playwright: Hannah Moscovitch
Director: Janet Irwin
Set & Costume Designer: Camellia Koo
Lighting Designer: Jock Munro
Composer and Musical Director (live): Nick Carpenter
Composer and Sound Designer (recorded): Marc Desormeaux
Movement Director: Peter Ryan
Fight the Director: John Koensgen
Stage Manager: Kevin Waghorn
Apprentice Stage Manager: Louisa Hache
Assistant Director: Patrick Gauthier
Child Minder: Lindsay Carkner
Creative Producer – 0SSD: Amanda Lewis
Dramaturg: Lise Ann Johnson
Sound Operator: Jon Carter
Lighting Operator: Darryl Bennett
Head Painter: Stephanie Dahmer
Head of Wardrobe: Genevieve Ethier
Production Reviewed: November 12, 2009 8 PM running time (including twenty minute intermission) two hours ten minutes