Many artists say they create to survive. Of course, “survive” here doesn’t mean to earn a living, but to persevere through the weight of the world, to find meaning in life. This was true of artists held in transit camps during the Holocaust, but perseverance was only the half of it. In the Dutch transit camp Westerbork, performers put on shows not only to uplift their fellow prisoners, but to delay their transport to the death camps. It wasn’t just about living; it was about not dying.
Joanna Caplan honors the memory and work of the Jewish artists who performed at Westerbork such as Max Ehrlich, Dora Gerson, and Willy Rosen in her touring solo show “Total Verrückt!” now at the Baltimore Theatre Project. Named after the final production of the Camp Westerbork Theatre Group, the cabaret troupe founded and directed by Ehrlich until his move to Auschwitz, Caplan’s performance flows between poetic monologues and energetic physical theater, the two frequently overlapping. Some of the words are Caplan’s own, others are sourced from the diaries of prisoners like Etty Hillesum, a writer whose journal documenting her time in Westerbork was published posthumously in 1981.
Directed by Matthew Glassman, “Total Verrückt!” treats Westerbork in itself as a character, personified through the narrator’s complicated love letters to the camp (“My Westerbork, you plagued me a lot and yet you had a sex appeal all your own”) as well as the treatment of the stage. The near-symmetrical set is formed by crumbling wood and barbed wire structures centered around train tracks rising like a ladder from the floor to a small window suspended below the ceiling. As Caplan traverses the floor in feverish motions, the space feels appropriately cramped. Presumably inspired by Hillesum, the narrator arrives at Westerbork by placing one square of tracks in from of the other, building the path as she goes, until the “train” shakes furiously at its arrival. “I became enamored with the train,” she says.
Embodying the spirit of multiple artists, let alone multiple characters is a considerable feat, and Caplan deftly performs with the wide-ranging skills of the Westerbork Theatre members. Between clever costume changes, she sings, strips, and bellydances, introducing each act as a shaking, heavily-bearded master of ceremonies. In one precarious act, she performs puppet-like choreography, pulled by invisible strings that later become four nooses, one looped around each limb, swinging her through the air. The image is enticing, and, as a result, disturbing. Like all of the cabaret performances at Westerbork, it’s a dance of death, executed with a blistering sense of desperation, with an equal balance of passion and exhaustion.
“Total Verrückt!” came out of Caplan’s residency at Double Edge Theatre, a “laboratory” theater company based in a former dairy farm in Ashfield, Massachusetts, where performers conduct long periods of research and rigorous physical training in preparation for their productions. That in-depth study comes through in “Total Verrückt!” as an alternative look into the Holocaust, focused on the powerful moments of creation that briefly penetrated the destruction.
“Total Verrückt!” runs through Dec. 6 at the Baltimore Theatre Project. The Dec. 5 show also includes a performance of Ilan Stavans' “The Oven.” For more information, visit theatreproject.org.