This theater publicity image released by Richard Kornberg and Associates shows the cast of “The Last Cyclist,” currently performing in a limited run at the West End Theater in New York. (AP Photo/Richard Kornberg and Associates, Carol Rosegg)
NEW YORK (AP) — Probably the most amazing thing about the bitter satire “The Last Cyclist” is that the original play was written and rehearsed inside a Nazi concentration camp. And watching the crude but well-performed and affecting production that opened Thursday night at the West End Theater, one can’t help thinking about what it was like to actually be trapped in the horrific situation of the original performers and their fellow inmates in those rehearsal audiences.
According to production notes, this play is based on a recreation of an absurdist cabaret written in the Terezín Ghetto by Czech dramatist Karel Svenk in 1944. It was rehearsed before other inmates, but never performed publicly due to fear of reprisals from the Nazis.
Svenk and most of the original cast were eventually sent to Auschwitz, and the original script was lost. Apparently only one original performer survived, Jana Sedova, who reconstructed the play from memory in 1961 for one performance in Prague.
This current version has been “reconstructed and reimagined” by Naomi Patz. While the action and characters are often heavy-handed, the play credibly conveys the necessity for people to take personal responsibility in resisting prejudice and racism.
With spirited direction by Edward Einhorn, the homespun, frenetic action unfolds on a small stage within a stage, arranged by set designer Clifton Chadwick to look like a dingy attic. In colorful, cartoonish costumes, the 10 actors tumble on and off the set, swiftly changing roles through a series of 21 vignettes. With slapstick and broad, vaudevillian humor, they parody the random illogic and racism of a world where people were killed just for being Jewish.
In the absurdist plot, inmates escape from an asylum, take over the world and kill everyone who rides a bicycle or whose family has ever had anything to do with bicycles. The simple, unanswerable questions that open and close the play are “Why the cyclists?” and then, “Why the Jews?”
The deranged leaders of the cyclist purge are a goose-stepping, black-leather-trench-coated woman called “Ma-am,” one who is played with chilly superiority by Jenny Lee Mitchell. With his tall, chiseled Aryan looks, Eric Emil Oleson provides villainous derangement as Ma’am’s increasingly insane partner in crime, a psuedo-doctor called Rat.
Patrick Pizzolorusso plays the hapless anti-hero, Borivoj Abeles, a simple man who refuses to believe what’s happening all around him until he actually is “the last cyclist.” Alyson Leigh Rosenfeld plays his craftier girlfriend, Manicka. Kirsten Hopkins and V. Orien Delwaterman portray two silly-looking escaped lunatics who hop around gaping like children, but eagerly participate in the oppression of others.
The purpose of writing and performing satires like “The Last Cyclist” was to keep up the spirits of dehumanized, starving camp residents. The resurrection of this ironic parable serves as a chilling reminder of the valiant spirits lost in the unthinkable human destruction of the Holocaust.