Why Shakespeare in Action not only mounted The Diary of Anne Frank last year but is RE-mounting it now at the Al Green Theatre through March 24th is beyond me. It’s an excellent production of a well-constructed play presenting a profound true story, but they’re a Shakespeare company presenting a Holocaust play- it just feels like an odd detour. That said, perhaps, as odd as the matchup may be, Shakespeare in Action is exactly the right company to be doing The Diary of Anne Frank, because they do it great justice.
Glenn Davidson’s set is beautifully representational. It’s tattered and uncomfortable with its torn-paper walls and bare-bones furnishings, but it’s not hellishly oppressive; there’s just enough comfort there that the threat of worse places looms even heavier. The weight of knowledge presses particularly painfully on the shoulders of the audience watching Otto Frank’s desperate attempts to keep his family safe. There’s a point early in the play when Mr. Kraler- the man who is hiding the Franks and the Van Daans in the annex of his office building- utters the line that broke my heart more than any other over the course of the 2-hour, one-act play: “I never thought I would see the day when a man like Mr. Frank would have to go into hiding”. “A man like Mr. Frank”, indeed, is the sort of man who, were the world a proper meritocracy, would be living like a king. Forced to give up his business, his home, his very freedom, Otto Frank holds his head as high as it goes and attempts to save as much of the world as he can- he reassures his family, he opens up their hiding place to the Van Daans, he doesn’t hesitate for one moment when contemplating dividing the space and rations even further by including Mr. Dussel, saying “if we can save even one life…”. Every little thing Otto Frank does throughout the story- narrated by his daughter who worships the very ground he walks on- is for the sake of the 7 souls in that annex that aren’t his own. How, then, are we supposed to cope with the foreknowledge that surely almost the entire audience has- that Otto Frank will be the only survivor? The warmth in Chris Karczmar’s performance as Otto makes it even worse- how well developed his relationships are, how easy his charm and quiet his strength, how swiftly he takes over the schooling of Anne, Margot and Peter- Anne is the narrator of her diary, the symbol of lost dreams and unfulfilled potential, but it’s Otto Frank and his fundamental goodness that makes the piece insightfully unbearable.
I say unbearable, meaning that director Michael Kelly’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank will twist your stomach into knots and take away your ability to breathe. Fascinatingly, one of the many reasons that effect is so powerful is the great amount of humour Kelly and his capable cast are able to mine from the text. Based on Anne’s actual diary entries, The Diary of Anne Frank has the authenticity of tonal inconsistency. Most fictional representations of the Holocaust are bleak, political entries meant to further re-awaken the tragedy in the audience’s mind. And while Anne most certainly accomplishes that, her account is far more human, full of the heartbreaking optimism that, even in the worst of times, good people are able to find. There are moments of happiness, contentment and love amongst the 10 characters in the play. There’s also great pettiness, teenage angst and girlish romance, because, as painful a reality it is to comprehend, Anne Frank was a real girl- a real, honest, flawed, innocent girl with all the complications and ugliness that come with that. There were full belly laughs from the audience at multiple points in Anne’s story- mostly to do with her awkward romance with Peter Van Daan- and the ensemble’s wonderful timing really brought those moments to life. There’s nothing worse than dealing with the death of someone with whom you were laughing mere minutes ago, a concept that The Diary of Anne Frank plays on brilliantly, knowing that few things can heighten tragedy like comedy.
As a unit, the cast has superb chemistry and wealthily established relationships amongst their characters (perhaps the benefit of a remount). As individuals, their effects are more mixed. Sascha Cole has a wonderful sweetness to her Anne but (to her great credit) doesn’t shy away from the obnoxious side that drives her companions so mad. The obvious (and, realistically, unavoidable) age disparity between Cole and her 13-year-old character was distracting at first, but she eased me into it as the piece went on. Karczmar, as previously stated, is tremendous as Otto and Alexis Koetting is interestingly mild as Edith Frank. The Van Daans suffer from a bit broader characterization, but Catherine McNally is so wonderfully hilarious as the fur-coat-hogging matriarch that she can be forgiven. Cindy Block is a bit miscast as Miep, however, failing to really distinguish the selfless character; but then again, I’m entirely more fond of Miep as a historical figure than her line-light role in the play really allows. On their own, each member of the cast is acceptable-to-solid with only Karczmar standing out that far above the rest. It’s as an entity that they really shine, in details like the parents’ instincts to throw themselves between their children and the guns in the play’s climactic moments. Together, the cast, director and designer succeed in creating the world of Anne Frank’s annex- one that’s rich and complicated and, most horrifyingly, full of very real people.