USF memory play explores holocaust with young actors – review

Play review by matthew stoffel of the university of sioux falls' I Never Saw Another Butterfly
Promotional image, taken from USF Theatre’s Facebook event

Playgoers at USF theatre’s latest show found themselves walking through an arch and onto a painted set of railroad tracks, the other end of which disappeared into black curtains.

While we stepped off the path before that unknown darkness to find seats, the effect set a tone for director Joseph Obermueller’s attempt to put us in the place of holocaust prisoners.

The University of Sioux Falls’ I Never Saw Another Butterfly by Celeste Raspanti ran from November 11-15. The one act play was inspired by the true story of Raja Englanderova, one of 15,000 Jewish children imprisoned in Terezin concentration camp, and depicts the secret lessons kids engaged in to maintain hope against the horror around them.

The play is named after a poem written by Raja’s fellow child prisoner, Pavel Friedman, which can be found here.

Unlike Pavel, Raja (played by Sophie Harano) is one of the roughly 100 children who survived Terezin, and the show sees her both as a reflective grown woman and a frightened girl.

Harano does a fine job of narrating, but doesn’t offer much distinction between child and adult Raja. This made some early scenes more presentational than engaginy, but Harano hits a stride in the play’s second half, particularly opposite Micah Abraham as the endearing Honza.

Like Harano, Abraham gives off the vibe of being a young actor, but his natural charm shines through the role, making Honza’s storyline the most engaging and enjoyable of the play.

On the whole, the young cast seems to be in the process of finding their stage presence. Men often relied on getting loud to emote while women depended on trembling voices for both fear and sorrow, but some standouts helped keep the action going.

Alecia Martinez brought an old-soul dignity to Irena Synkova, the teacher helping kids to escape sadness through poems and drawings, and supporting performances by actors like Amy Elston and AJ Krumholz helped ground realism.

Joe Obermueller USF University of Sioux Falls professor and director of theatre
Joe Obermueller is assistant professor of communications studies and theatre at USF, and directed I Never Saw Another Butterfly.

In my preview of the show with the Argus Leader, Obermueller stresses his hope for the play to connect us with the pain characters are experiencing and relate it to modern atrocities.

While the performances didn’t necessarily deliver the believability I needed, the staging was dynamic and interesting, with Honza’s scenes remaining the highlight alongside the ensemble’s swirl into a Jewish wedding. Jeff McDonald’s simple scenic design granted the blocking plenty of freedom while keeping the train tracks a focal point, and Micki DeCurtins’ lighting should also be applauded for navigating the script’s poetic realism.

At the end of the night, Butterfly still had honest and haunting moments. Yes, it bore some clear marks of a green cast, but Obermueller’s strong sense of the play’s emotional weight guided a well-conceived and executed production that hit the heart of what the Terezin child poets and artists can teach us: Hope.

As the rabbi (Krumholz) says during the wedding of Raja’s brother, “Good can rise from evil.”

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