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Park Square Theatre’s Zoom presentation of The Diary of Anne Frank
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Theater

Anne Frank via Zoom

A new format heightens classic story's emotional impact

Available free online only through May 24 is the most creative and emotional rendition of The Diary of Anne Frank you may ever see. Streaming has already been extended several weeks because of the international attention it has garnered, with no plans for further extensions.

Park Square Theatre, a small theater in St. Paul, Minnesota, was about to open its 21st production of the play when COVID-19 hit. No more stage productions allowed. But rather than quashing the presentation, director Ellen Fenster got creative and rallied the troupe to put on a first-ever Zoom performance of Anne Frank, originally made for stage in 1955.

That’s right, the Zoom you’ve been using to teleconference your work colleagues, join your small group at church, and listen to orchestra members connect to play Beethoven’s fifth, is now a format for theater. The 10-member cast had already been practicing lines using Zoom, so they seized the suggestion to go virtual rather than let the curtain fall.

Billed as “a special online production created by artists in isolation,” this adaptation of Anne Frank’s hiding in the secret annex is particularly apropos considering the isolation today’s pandemic is causing around the world. But viewing it will leave you counting your blessings instead of your days without dining in a restaurant.

The true story tells how Anne, her sister, and her parents, along with another family and one other man, all Jews, hid from the Nazis in the attic apartment behind Anne’s father’s office in Amsterdam. They lived there for more than two years, from June of 1942 to August of 1944.

Each character inhabits a Zoom square with a different neutral background and uses minimal props. Characters appear and disappear as the dialogue and scene suggest, and the personal nature of the players looking directly into the camera heightens the emotion of each line. I empathized with Anne’s adolescent ruminating and older-than-her-years philosophizing. I could feel my own temperature rise watching family members struggle to get along in close quarters, share rations, and wait, wait, wait.  

The simplicity of the format and close-up expressions of each wonderfully well-cast actor are surprisingly effective. I didn’t expect to be so drawn in, especially because I’d seen the actual play in the same theater years earlier. That production was moving. This was even better.

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© Carol Rosegg

Juliana Francis-Kelly, Steven Skybell, Abigail Killeen and Michelle Hurst
© Carol Rosegg

Theater

‘Babette’ off-Broadway

Babette’s Feast brings refreshing subject matter to New York’s theater district, but the play’s ingredients need a tweak

Readers may know Babette’s Feast from the original short story by Isak Dinesen or the acclaimed 1987 film adaptation. Now that story is playing in an open-ended run off-Broadway, in a gorgeous old church in New York’s theater district.

The play, which follows the short story more closely than the film, takes place within an ascetic Protestant sect in a remote Norwegian village. Two sisters take in Babette, a refugee of war in France, without knowing anything else about her. The taciturn Babette—secretly one of the world’s greatest chefs—ends up blessing and transforming the town in a radical act of generosity.

It’s a meaty story about a gift of unmerited grace that is rare for an off-Broadway show. Characters quote Scripture throughout, and the play never takes a derogatory view of the sectarians. Whatever their particular Christian tradition is, it has a mystical vibe. The sectarians regularly repeat their founder’s creed: “God’s paths run across the sea and the snowy mountains, where man’s eye sees no track.”

Michelle Hurst (Orange Is the New Black) brings wonderful weight and dignity to Babette. The play’s simple design is beautiful too (despite the absence of any real food or drink). 

It seems to me the play would be truly compelling if each actor stayed within his or her role. Instead, an ensemble of six narrates the story, and the actors whirl very theatrically in and out of different characters. Babette is a story of intimate community, and that intimacy is lost when an actor is switching from playing a pompous Italian opera star to a fishmonger to a pious townsperson. The audience doesn’t have a chance to bond with the characters. 

Babette’s Feast isn’t badly done. I just wish it were a knockout—like the five-star excellence Babette delivers in her act of grace.

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Sara Krulwich/The New York Times/Redux

 The cast of "Oslo," at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in New York
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times/Redux

Theater

Dramatic diplomacy

"Oslo," up for seven Tonys, offers the right antidote to both cynicism and idolatry of politics

At a time when political discord seems to find its way into every dinnertime conversation, a new Broadway play explores the world’s most intractable political divide: that between Israelis and Palestinians. Oslo recounts the top-secret back-channel talks in Norway that led to the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace accords, a story drawn from the playwright’s relationship with some of the negotiators.

The original play by J.T. Rogers is a financial hit—always tough for shows without musical numbers or a built-in audience—and it has garnered seven Tony nominations (the Tony Awards are on June 11). It has an open-ended run on Broadway and will open in London’s West End in the fall.

The 1993 peace accords didn’t lead to lasting change, but Rogers’ play is a warm and well-executed endorsement of the idea of building relationships with your enemies. The setting is a Norwegian hotel where Israeli and Palestinian representatives secretly met for months. Between arguments over Jerusalem and terrorism, the hotel cook interrupts with waffles that break the tension. 

A play about diplomacy sounds bone-dry but Oslo has the feel of a political thriller, with fast-cutting scenes and furniture whirling on and off the stage. Some curse words, too, are a feature of these backroom talks, but that is a real-life attribute of political staffers I’ve met. A dinner table continuously rises and falls from center stage, and here comes coffee, and there go more waffles, and here comes whiskey. 

All the elements are here for that Tony award for best play, with cast leads Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays undergirding the staging and script. The second half of the play is long, but it is survivable due to the entrance to the negotiations of the lightning bolt Israeli diplomat Uri Savir, played with verve by Michael Aronov, who is also up for a Tony award.

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