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Review: “Pianist of Willesden Lane”—a daughter strikes a deep chord in her mother’s musical story of survival, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre through January 5, 2014

In “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” acclaimed pianist and storyteller Mona Golabek performs some of the world’s most beloved piano music while chronicling her mother’s escape from the Holocaust. At Berkeley Repertory Theatre through January 5, 2014.  Photo courtesy of mellopix.com

In “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” acclaimed pianist and storyteller Mona Golabek performs some of the world’s most beloved piano music while chronicling her mother’s escape from the Holocaust. At Berkeley Repertory Theatre through January 5, 2014. Photo courtesy of mellopix.com

In The Pianist of Willesden Lane, piano virtuoso and author Mona Golabek channels the very spirit of her mother, Austrian pianist Lisa Jura, in the musical telling of Jura’s Holocaust survival story.  This heart piercing solo show of music and words, which opened last Wednesday (Oct 30) at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, is a deeply moving triumph.

Produced and adapted by Hershey Felder, who just a few months ago brought and performed the solo show, George Gershwin Alone, to Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage, The Pianist of Willesden Lane is based on the acclaimed best-selling book, The Children of Willesden Lane (Grand Central Publishing, 2002) by Mona Golabek & Lee Cohn.  The story is one of separation, sacrifice, and the power of music and family to elevate the spirit in the darkest of times.  Golabek performs some of the world’s most beloved piano music in this searing tribute to her remarkable mother.

Golabek’s mother, Lisa Jura, was just 14 in March 1938 when German troops entered Vienna and interrupted her life in this cultural capital where Jews congregated.  The changes were confusing and unpleasant—Lisa, a piano prodigy, could no longer take piano lessons from her beloved teacher who was discouraged from interaction with Jews.  Her dream of a debut at the fabled Musikverein concert hall was shattered.  The situation escalated on Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass, November 9-10, 1938), when her father—a tailor—suffered a humiliating brush with death that led to the decision to flee Austria.

The family was only able to secure a single ticket on the highly-demanded Kindertransport train which rescued children threatened by the Nazis and took them to England.  It was decided that Lisa, the middle child, should go, as she stood the best chance of thriving as a classical pianist.

Bolstering Lisa throughout the ordeal were the last words her mother spoke to her—“Hold onto your music.  It will be your best friend in life.” These words were uttered at the Vienna train station in November 1938 as Lisa joined hundreds of crying children in saying their good-byes forever to their parents.  Many times, in those darkest of days, when disappointments, fear or pain were about to overwhelm her, Lisa recalled these words.

Jura was one of 10,000 refugee children brought to England before World War II as part of the Kindertransport mission.  As soft-spoken Golabek recounts her mother’s story, we are riveted. Imagine Lisa’s anxiety when the relative, who was supposed to meet her at the station in London and care for her, was unable to fulfill his promise to her family and she was abandoned.  Like many refugee children aged 14 and above, she became a domestic worker and was expected to earn her keep.  She was sent to a large country estate to work.  When she was unable to play the piano there, which she was told was for show purposes only; she left abruptly and travelled alone to London where she settled in at the titular Willesden Lane home for children. It was there that she slowly began to flourish—the piano as her anchor— and began life anew in London with the sad realization that she might never see any of her family members again.

In “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” award-winning pianist Mona Golabek plays the piano under a projected image of her parents, Lisa and Michel Golabek.  Photo courtesy of mellopix.com

In “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” award-winning pianist Mona Golabek plays the piano under a projected image of her parents, Lisa and Michel Golabek. Photo courtesy of mellopix.com

Mainly seated at the Steinway piano, Golabek uses slight shifts in her posture at the keyboard and in phrasing to help tell the story of young Lisa’s gradual transformation into a young virtuoso.  She plays interludes from Beethoven, Debussy, Chopin, Bach, Gershwin, Strachey, Rachmaninoff and Grieg without sheet music and also commits considerable spoken passages in the 90 minute performance to memory.  Her calm delivery is achingly authentic.

From the performance’s earliest moments, we learn that Lisa dreams of making her own concert debut with Grieg’s “Piano Concerto in A Minor, Opus 16,” an exceedingly difficult and challenging piece that requires maturity, stamina and technique. The Norwegian composer was just 24 when he wrote this brilliant concerto in three movements, the only concerto he ever completed. Hershey Felder fleshes out the great storytelling moments in Lisa’s journey and loosely hangs them around the Grieg concerto and Golabek plays portions of all three movements.  The audience was clearly stirred at the very exciting moment of Lisa’s scholarship audition at the London Academy of Music where she performed from stirring Bach, Beethoven, Scriabin piano classics flawlessly.  But at the end of the evening, when Golabek played from the Grieg Third Movement, with its adventurous rhythms, tears flowed freely.

Well-executed décor and video projections greatly enhance the performance.  A gorgeous array of huge gold gilt picture frames surround the Steinway on the Thrust stage.  These antique frames serve as video portals for Felder’s well-curated of selection of personal and archival news photos, newsreel footage, and famous artworks.  Set in the glow of the midnight blue stage, with Jura’s punctuated playing, it’s a sight to behold.  Particularly riveting are portraits of family members, glorious shots of old Vienna, and the devastation of the London Blitzkrieg which destroyed Lisa’s place of asylum in London, the home for young refugees at 243 Willesden Lane.

The impact of this inspiring performance comes in waves…. What strength it must take for Golabek to channel her mother on a daily basis, knowing full well that she is here and only able to do what she does because of her grandparents’ sacrifice that allowed for her mother to pursue her dream.

Based on the book The Children of Willesden Lane (Grand Central Publishing, 2002) by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen.  Starring Mona Golabek as Lisa Jura

Creative team: Trevor Hay and Hershey Felder (scenic designers), Jaclyn Maduff (costume designer), Christopher Rynne (lighting designer), Erik Carstensen (sound designer), Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal (projection designers).

Run-time is 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Post-play discussions: Thursday 11/14, Tuesday 11/19, and Friday 12/6 following the performance and after all weekend matinees

Repartee: FREE docent talks @ 7:00 PM on Tuesday and Thursdays and free discussions after all weekend matinees

Details: Pianist of Willesden Lane, has been extended through January 5, 2014 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Theatre, 2015 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704. Performances are Tues-Sun with matinees on Sat, Sun and some Thurs.  Tickets: $29 to $89.  Discounts:  Half-price tickets available for anyone under 30 years of age; $10 discount for students and seniors one hour before curtain.

Parking:  Paid parking is readily available at over 5 parking garages as close as one block from the theatre. The Allston Way Garage, 2061 Allston Way, between Milvia and Shattuck, offers $3 parking Tuesday–Friday after 6 PM or all day on Saturday or Sunday when your garage-issued parking ticket is accompanied by a free voucher ticket that is available in the theatre lobby.  These new tickets accommodate the newly automated parking garage’s ticket machines and are available in a pile located where the ink stamp used to be.

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November 8, 2013 Posted by | Classical Music, Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Film Review: Elisabeth Scharang’s “In Another Lifetime,” an Austrian period film of operetta and audacity premieres at the 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, July 21 –August 8, 2011

 

Ursula Strauss (right) delivers an intense performance as Traudl Fasching, in the West Coast premiere of Elisabeth Scharang’s debut feature film “In Another Lifetime.” Fasching is a sympathetic Austrian farmer's wife in whose barn 20 emaciated Jewish prisoners are camping. Franziska Singer (left) plays Poldi, the family maid, whose boyfriend, an SS officer, is missing. Image courtesy of SFJFF31.

Austrian documentarian Elisabeth Scharang’s debut feature film In Another Lifetime makes its West Coast premiere at the 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.  Set in Austria in April 1945, during the chaotic final days of World War II, the film is one of the festival’s most interesting offerings and from its opening scene, cast in the natural light of the Austrian Alps, there is no turning away.  Its subject matter—an operetta performance that offers hope and healing to both Jewish prisoners and their captors— hasn’t been tackled before in Holocaust film.  Subplots of forbidden love, a marriage numbed by the devastation of losing a child, and risk-taking to do what’s inherently right pitted against insidious conformity all add up to a compelling story set within an ominous larger picture of mass death and evil.  What sets this fictional period film apart, though, is its use of the palliative experience of music, specifically opera, as an escape from the surreal experience of war.  The film is based on a play by screenwriters Silke Hassler and Peter Turrini.

The story begins as a group of 20 exhausted and starving Hungarian Jews are led on a forced death march by the German Wehrmacht through the back provinces of Austria towards the Mauthausen concentration camp.  After a brief rest, an elderly prisoner refuses to fall back into line and marches off and is shot dead.  One emaciated young man, with a mop of dark hair, plays a few piercing stanzas on his violin.  Music is the connective tissue of this film and Scharang uses it brilliantly throughout.

Because the Wehrmacht are seeking to evade the approaching Red Army, they leave the small group of Jews stranded in a tiny Austrian village and entrust them to the village policemen and the Volkssturm (the “storm of the people” or people’s army, Hitler’s last ditch defense in WWII).  Typically for this period, rural populations, now unbound from the authority of superiors, treated the Jews according to their own personal characters and beliefs, with results ranging from the kindest examples of generosity to the cruelest acts of barbarism.  This group is locked in the hay barn of the Faschings, an embittered farmer and his sullen wife (Johannes Krisch and Ursula Strauss, paired again after their brilliant performances in Revanche, [2009, Austria], nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film). Exhibiting compassion and bravery, it is the maid Poldi (Franziska Singer) who first defies the rules to feed and communicate with the prisoners and then pulls in Traudl Fasching (Ursula Strauss), who is soon giving them all of her bread and soup and listening to their music.

 
 
 

The French cinematographer, Jean-Claude Larrieu masterfully bathes each scene in natural light, infusing even the most humdrum kitchen work and chores with Vermeer-like drama.  The characters’ plain clothing, pale household interiors, stark barn and compositions all back up the Vermeer-like atmosphere, creating a series of mundane yet monumental freeze-frame portraits.   

As is fairly typical in Holocaust literature and film, the inspirational figure who steps forward to buoy spirits is an artist—recall Adrian Brody, the title character in The Pianist [2002, USA].  When Péter Végh, as charismatic Hungarian tenor Lou Gandolf, senses the women’s compassion, he outlandishly proposes that their motley group stage Wiener Blut, a Strauss operetta, for the locals, and convinces them all that art for art’s sake—the humanity of music–is all that remains in this bleak situation.  Gandolf’s curious display of sheer pluck is balanced by his character’s intuitive ability to be completely passive when necessary.

Hell breaks loose when Stefan Fasching (Johannes Krisch) discovers what his wife is doing in the barn and the great risk it poses for them in this tightly-knit community.  It’s almost impossible to take your eyes off of Kirsch, who delivers a particularly intense performance as a man so hardened by the loss of his son that he too might as well be facing death.  He is still deeply affected by music though, and once his fingers find their home on his old accordion, he softens and offers to play in the production.

Austrian filmmaker Elisabeth Scharang’s debut feature film “In Another Lifetime” takes place in a hay barn in an Austrian village where stranded Jewish prisoners prepare to stage a version of the beloved operetta Wiener Blut, hoping to win the protection of the locals. Photo courtesy: SFJFF31.

Carefully selected music is one of the film’s most appealing features.  The operetta Wiener Blut  (literally “Viennese Blood” or “Viennese Spirit”) evokes both soft nostalgia as well as the  indomitable Viennese spirit and will to survive, which encompasses the prisoners’ situation as well.  The operetta is named after the spirited “Wiener Blut Waltz” (Op. 354) by the 19th –century “waltz king” Johann Strauss, Jr. composer of such frothy classics “The Bue Danube” (“Die Schönen Blauen Donau”), “The Emperor Waltz” (“Kaiser-Walzer”), and the operetta Die Fledermaus.  Strauss waltzes remain the most powerful signifiers of old Vienna, nostalgically evoking the lost glory days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a time during which the Austrians retreated into light-hearted celebration of old-fashioned culture as a way of ignoring change.  Emblematically, Wiener Blut unfolds against the glittering backdrop of the Congress of Vienna (November 1814- June 1815), a meeting of the Great Powers of Europe to agree upon the boundaries of post-Napoleonic Europe, but the operetta’s plot focuses entirely on the philandering of an Ambassador-Count who represents a tiny principality attending the Congress.  In Another Lifetime also makes canny use of the title song of Rose Marie by Czech-born composer Rudolf Friml, a Viennese-style American operetta regarded as frivolous pop music at the time.  Here it is played endlessly by an otherwise insignificant young Volkssturm officer who sequesters himself inside a seized home with a confiscated gramophone.  

What finally transpires in this story makes In Another Lifetime one of the most gripping assemblages of character studies among the festival’s offerings. Elisabeth Scharang gradually and masterfully infuses us with hope, despite the forces of evil advancing just outside the barn.  In the end, as we are left morally outraged, a beautiful and unforgettable image set some 60 years after the film’s main action ends shifts our thoughts to the responsibility and burden of those who witness mass violence.  And a Strauss’ waltz, which has insistently worked its way into our subconscious, plays over and over again in our heads.

Click inside box to enlarge text.

 In Another Lifetime:  Austria, Germany, Hungary, 2010, 94 min., in German and Hungarian with English Subtitles

Director: Elisabeth Scharang

Screenwriters: Silke Hassler, Peter Turrini,

Cinematographer: Jean-Claude Larrieu

Principal Cast:  Johannes Krisch, Péter Végh, Ursula Strauss, Franziska Singer

 Details:  “In Another Lifetime” screens 4 times at the 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival: Tuesday, July 26, 2011, 3:45 PM, Castro Theatre, San Francisco

Tuesday August 2, 2011, 8:55 PM, RODA Theatre (at Berkeley Rep), Berkeley

Wednesday, August 3, 2011, 8:30 PM, Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, Palo Alto

Sunday, August 7, 2011, 1:40 PM, Smith Rafael Film Center, San Rafael

Tickets are $10 to $12.00 and can be purchased online or by phone at 415.621.0523.  Tickets are also available for same day purchase at individual screening venues but screenings may sell out in advance.  The 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival  (www.sfjff.org ), July 21-August 8, 2011, is the world’s oldest and largest Jewish film festival, featuring 58 films in all.  There are 38 full-length films (23 documentaries and 15 narratives) and 19 shorts (10 documentaries, 1 narrative and 8 animations) from 16 countries.  There are many free events too. 

 

July 29, 2011 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment