Banned Cabaret Blends Humor with Horror
Cardinal Stritch University Theater brings together professional and student actors to stage ‘The Last Cyclist,’ a show first written in a Nazi concentration campBy Stephanie Harte
Photo Credit: Nick Narcisi as Lunatic 1, Randall T. Anderson as Rat, Leslie Fitzwater as Mrs. Manickova, Maggie Marks as Lunatic 2, Amanda Richards as Lunatic 4, Joel Kopischke as Abeles. Photo by Traveling Lemur Productions.
The inmates of Terezín, a Nazi concentration camp in the 1940s, didn’t have proper access to necessities like food, water or heat, but they did have the power of art and creativity.
One of these bold inmates, young Czech playwright Karel Švenk, wrote an absurdist cabaret called The Last Cyclist. In the cabaret, inmates of a mental institution escape and take over the outside world. For no clear reason they decide to hound, oppress, exile or kill everyone who rides a bicycle, or has ancestors who owned bicycles.
Due to the obvious anti-Nazi theme, the Council of Jewish Elders banned The Last Cyclist after the dress rehearsal for the group’s own safety. A year later, the Nazis murdered Švenk and the script was thought to be lost forever.
However, in 1961, Cyclist cast member Jana Šedová, reconstructed the play from memory for a production in Prague. Šedová was the only original member of the cast known to survive the Holocaust. Finally, playwright Naomi Patz edited and reimagined a translation of Šedová’s version so American audiences can experience the piece. Patz added new beginning and ending scenes where Šedová recalls the night of the dress rehearsal, making Švenk’s cabaret a play-within-a-play.
Laura Monagle as Manicka and Joel Kopischke as Abeles. Photo by Traveling Lemur Productions.
Cardinal Stritch University Theater has collaborated with the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center and the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center to bring this powerful piece to local audiences.
“The only weapon that the Nazis didn’t have was a sense of humor,” says Dan Haumschild, Holocaust Education Resource Center fellow and dramaturg. “Every other weapon they had and they had a better version of it than anyone else.”
Haumschild brought the script for The Last Cyclist to Mark Boergers, chair of Cardinal Stritch’s theater program back in Oct. 2017. Boergers initially turned it down, but after discussion with colleagues realized the complex subject presented a great opportunity to cast a mix of professional and student performers.
While Boergers explains that Cardinal Stritch always hires professional designers and directors, they rarely use outside actors. For The Last Cyclist, the ratio of student to professional actors is almost even, with five students and seven professionals.
“The professional actors are much more used to coming into rehearsal already fully loaded and ready to go and take risks,” Boergers says. “That’s the hardest part about being a theater artist, going into a rehearsal room and just doing something that might be wrong. Part of the education is learning how to take risks like that.”
Amanda Richards, a senior majoring in theater at Cardinal Stritch, plays the roles of Eva, Big Shot and Lunatic 4 in the production. Since The Last Cyclist is a play-within-a-play, all performers portray multiple roles, including the real inmates in the camp and the characters they played in The Last Cyclist.
(Left to Right) Amanda Richards as Big Shot, Randall T. Anderson as Rat, Donnie Williams as Red, Leslie Fitzwater as Rich, Andres Hernandez as Other Cyclist. Photo by Traveling Lemur Productions.
“It’s an interesting timeline because you could just perform the show, but I think attaching the actors at the beginning and end make it all more real,” Richards says. “It makes the allegory all the more strong because these were real people that were trying to perform the show, but were never able to because the allegory was too similar to what was actually going on.”
Laura Monagle, one of the professional actors in The Last Cyclist, has worked with a variety of local companies like The Fireside Theatre, Skylight Music Theatre and Off The Wall. Monagle, who plays Šedová and her character Manicka, says balancing the satire of the script with the terror of the Holocaust has been one of the most interesting challenges she has faced as a performer.
“There is a feeling of wanting to make sure you are respectful of that horror and the memory of all the people who lived through it or did not live through it,” Monagle notes. “But then in addition you also have the responsibility of doing the play that they created, which is meant to bring out all of the things that are so ridiculous about the Holocaust and punching them up.”
Randall T. Anderson as Rat and Marcee Doherty-Elst as Ma’am. Photo by Traveling Lemur Productions.
Monagle says that the cast researching the subject on their own, as well as learning more from Haumschild and local Holocaust survivors helped the performers become more comfortable with doing justice to the satire in the production.
“This destroys the confines of the classroom and creates an educational experience about the Holocaust that touches people in a variety of ways,” Haumschild says. “This is the opportunity to reflect on the meaning of self expression, and the purpose and almost the requirement of self expression in order to be and feel fully human. These people did it with scraps and whatever was available to them. They DIYed in a way that puts our perception of DIY to shame.”
The Last Cyclist, presented by Cardinal Stritch University Theater in collaboration with the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center and the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, runs April 5 – 14 at Nancy Kendall Mainstage Theater, 6801 N Yates Rd, Milwaukee. For tickets, visit stritch.edu/performingarts or call the box office at 414-410-4171.