Bob Goepfert: So That History Might Not Repeat Itself | WAMC

Bob Goepfert: So That History Might Not Repeat Itself

Feb 12, 2020

TROY - Seeing “The Diary of Anne Frank” at Russell Sage College in Troy and “The New Colossus” at Proctors in Schenectady, within a 24 hour period can be a jarring and terrifying experience.  Both plays tell of people trying to save themselves from brutal governments who rule through fear and brutality.

Perhaps most disturbing is the way both works focus on seemingly-civilized societies manipulate by fear, hate and attempts to destroy entire cultures.

But, truly, the most chilling aspect of the two productions is the realization that even though the story of Anne Frank took place 75 years ago, people hiding from authoritarian governments is happening today.  “Anne Frank” would not be less real if they placed the family in a wire cage instead of in an attic.

In “The New Colossus,” the story of the refugees fleeing from despotic governments covers 12 generations.   They all evoke a sense of the present.  At some point or another they face a man-made obstacle, that denies them entry to freedom.

“The Diary of Anne Frank,” which continues at Russell Sage College in Troy through Sunday, is about the Frank Family who never got the opportunity to become refugees or to flee Nazi-controlled Amsterdam.  They hid in an attic, along with another family, for two years hoping that being invisible would save them.   But they were discovered, and all but one of the eight perished in the concentration camps.  The great irony is they died only weeks before the death camps were liberated by Allied troops.

“The Diary of Anne Frank” tells a specific, true story which chronicles the emotional turmoil of a small group who suffer the hardships of isolation in the hope of saving their lives.  “The New Colossus” is less defined and more sprawling as it shows, more than tells of the individual struggles of displaced people searching for a safer land.

Though disturbing, Colossus is almost too general and abstract to be emotionally touching.  But, it does show the terror and heartbreak of being turned away by most of what is called the “civilized” world.

It’s a shame that the presentation depends almost exclusively on people carrying suitcases running in circles.  The tediousness of the presentation nearly blunts the genuine tragedy of their lives.

On the other hand, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” under the direction of Eileen Schuyler, is tender, moving and personal.  It’s strange that what seems a small story about 8 people living in claustrophobic quarters tells a larger story about human nature.  The cramped quarters and a life of stress breeds annoyances, disagreements and petty disputes.   But, more important, though tragic, it is life-sustaining.  Director Schuyler permits the staging to show the flaws of some individuals.  But what we remember are the reconciliations, the acts of forgiveness and the courage of young people who believe that good will prevail.

Everyone knows the inevitability of “Anne Frank,” but what moves us is the strength and beauty of how people deal with the fear that dominates a society gone mad.  Indeed, in a preshow interview Schuyler expressed concern about the play seeming too old to be relevant.   She said, “To a certain generation, it seems like wallpaper.  Attractive, but overly familiar.”  This production shows those fears are not valid.   “The Diary of Anne Frank” is a play that is almost necessary to see on a regular basis.

What truly shocked and even stunned Schuyler was to discover how few in the student cast, most in their early 20s, knew of the Holocaust but virtually nothing of its origins or root causes.   “Neither, did they realize that anti-Semitism is once again on the rise throughout Europe,” she says.

So within the framing of creating a work of art, the students also got a crash course about the history of anti-Semitism and how insidiously it can become part of a nation’s culture.

Schuyler is quick to point out that recent attacks on Jews and their places of worship in the United States have reinforced what began almost like a history lesson.

She was beyond successful in having her cast find the inner soul of doomed characters.   Except for two actors, the cast is composed of Russell Sage students.  They each captured the nuances of their characters and the essence of the group dynamics that drives the play.  It is a rewarding experience that continues this week Friday through Sunday.  It should be seen.

The lesson Schuyler hopes the audiences realize is that the production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” is not a history lesson.  “The New Colossus” makes the same statement.  That statement, in Schuyler’s words, is “History does repeat itself and we cannot sit idly by as the storm gathers.”

“The Diary of Anne Frank” at Russell Sage College.  Friday through Sunday    For schedule and ticket information call 518-244-4504 or go to theatreinstitute@sage.edu

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.