I have to admit I had extremely high expectations when I went to last night’s opening of Total Verruckt!, the one-woman show currently – briefly – playing at Baltimore Theatre Project. I always try to approach the performances I’m reviewing with as neutral a disposition as possible, but I interviewed this show’s creator and performer, Joanna Caplan, just a few days ago. I found her charming and sincere, genuinely driven to tell this story. I went in thinking, “This is going to be great!” And while the show was different than I’d been imagining, it truly exceeded my expectations in every way. Total Verruckt! is simultaneously beautiful, sad, and inspiring. Go see it while you can.
Total Verruckt! offers a glimpse of the real lives of some members of the Camp Westerbork Theatre Group. A Nazi transport and detention center in the Occupied Netherlands during World War II, Westerbork was like ‘Hell’s waiting room.’ From 1942 to 1944, alongside thousands of other prisoners, some of the day’s most talented and famous Jewish actors, singers, writers and cabaret performers came through Westerbork on their way to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen, Theresienstadt, and other death camps. Struggling to maintain sanity and humanity in the face of terrible conditions and almost unimaginable despair, performers like Max Ehrlich, Johnny & Jones, and Dora Gerson created art.
Their performances took place on Tuesdays. Everyone knew the train was coming each Tuesday to carry 3,000 or so of Westerbork’s residents away, but no one knew until the last moment if their name would be among those called to transport. The shows helped ease the suffering of uncertainty and despair in their fellow inmates, but they also helped provide a means of coping and survival to the artists who performed in them. As the intense stresses of captivity dragged on, though, Camp Westerbork Theatre Group’s shows grew more and more bizarre. Their final show, performed in 1944, was aptly named Total Verruckt – German for “totally crazy.”
Caplan captures all of this through her embodiment of five characters in her one-woman show. As Caplan was largely inspired by the diaries of Jewish-Dutch poet Etty Hillesum, herself a prisoner at Westerbork, it is no surprise that it is Etty’s character – speaking the real-life Etty’s words – that provide the poetic throughline for the piece. Etty’s voice is strong, clear and heartbreakingly honest. Without dropping spoilers, you can also expect to meet singers and dancers and Max Erhlich, the famous cabaret performer who founded the Camp Westerbork Theatre Group. Caplan fully transforms from character to character, changing not just costume elements, but also her voice, posture, and gait in such a way that makes each character distinct and unmistakably individual.
Even though Caplan told me that she worked diligently to make sure this show did not make caricatures of the real people it portrays, knowing that Max was a character led me to think it would be sort of a vaudevillian celebration of the courage of these artists. I am so glad I was wrong. This show is so much more. The cabaret is in there; there’s singing and dancing and Max as an emcee, but – as my husband put it when we were talking about the show after (and you’re going to want to talk about the show after) – “It was fantastic and lyrical, but it was still nailed to the tracks.” And he’s right. This show’s got layers.
Speaking of tracks, I have to give major acclaim to the invisible contributors to this show. From Matthew Glassman’s direction to Robert Carlton’s music and sound design, the non-performative aspects of Total Verruckt! were as top notch as the writing and the skillfully nuanced acting. Sarah Cormier’s design and technical direction was particularly notable. Remember those layers? The set and the lighting of this piece were not just beautiful, but positively dripping with metaphor. At the center of the stage, ascending toward the heavens, are railroad tracks. They serve many purposes; in one scene, they are literal railroad tracks; in another, a death camp version of a grandiloquent stairway down which an opera-gloved stage star descends, her glamor turned grotesque by hopelessness and captivity.
The coupling of beauty and decay is a recurring motif reinforced by Carroll Durand’s costume design. Once-gorgeous dresses are frayed and timeworn; Max’s coat, adorned with the mandatory yellow star, wraps around his body largely and is held closed with a belt – subtly bringing to mind the photos we’ve all seen of emaciated survivors of the camps. Director Matthew Glassman also did the lighting design, which also pulls double duty as both a functional element and Caplan’s co-storyteller. Dramatic shadows, for example, remind us how life in the camp renders people mere shadows of their former selves or, as Etty put it, “all outer appearances are a passing show.” As they fall high on the ascending railroad tracks, they show how heavily the shadow of death looms over each character. This show never forgets that every one of these talented people was going to die horribly, and soon.
Despite the specter of doom that hung over the characters, my knowledge of their fate coloring my vision, I didn’t leave Total Verruckt! feeling depressed. As a fellow opening night patron named Michael said to me as a crowd waited to meet Caplan after the show, “That was very powerful. I am going to have this in my head for a while.” So will I. That’s one of my favorite things about great art. You experience it not only as you view it, but many times, as you remember; it inspires you to talk to others about it and explore the layers and meanings therein. And with this show in particular, I will also remember Etty and Max, whose brief appearance on Theatre Project’s stage mirrored their real life counterparts’ brief appearances in life, and who left me wishing I had more time with them.
Running Time: Approximately one hour with no intermission.
Total Verruckt! plays through this Sunday, December 6, 2015 at Baltimore Theatre Project – 45 West Preston Street, in Baltimore, MD. Remaining performance are tonight at 8:00 pm; tomorrow (Saturday 12/5) at 2:00 pm and 8:00 pm; and Sunday 12/6 at 2:00 pm. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 752-8558, or purchase them online.
Plan to arrive a little early or plan to stay a little late to look over the table of research materials and media used in the creation of this play.
Art and Survival: A Conversation with Joanna Caplan, Creator and Performer of ‘Total Verruckt!’ by Patricia Mitchell.