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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

The Lilliput Troupe

A New Play by Gaby Febland

Or: The Stuff of Fairytales

Once upon a time in a faraway land (or rather in 1944, in the wilds of romania) there lived a family of seven performing dwarves: the Ovitz family, the Lilliput Troupe. For years Avram, Rozika, Frieda, Elizabeth, Micki, Francesca and Perla Ovitz toured every yiddish theater in easter europe, not as a novelty act but as consummate musicians, comedians, and storytellers. But when Hitler’s armies swept through their home these giant hearted siblings had no where to hide. Sent to Auschwitz for extermination, they found a guardian angel who kept them from the gas chambers. That angel was none other than the Angel of Death, Dr. Joseph Mengele, a man who’s inhuman experiments among the prisoners, and the Ovitzes, would put the most inventive and perverted imaginings to shame.

Gabrielle Febland invites us to join the Ovitz family in their first performance since their liberation: a performance of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, mingled with an depiction of their lives under their “Uncle’s” care. Rich with clowning, cobbling, songs, jokes, slapstick, and sharp toothed memory, Febland’s script is as juicy and challenging as I’ve come across in a long year. It doesn’t present a tale, it plays you like a balalaika. You’ll laugh and laugh and laugh, gobbling schtick after schtick like sweeties, and then swallow a joke with a razors edge. You’ll smile lovingly at some quaint device used to drive away the dark of all the beastliness, and find yourself scorched as that device takes on a new and horrifying significance. The lines between scripted entertainment, hilarious upset, personal remembrance, and deep seated trauma ribbon about each other in untraceable flights. You’d call it confusing but it is not: it dares you to follow and see how far the rabbit hole goes.

In-between Febland’s phoenix imagination and the considerable talents of her seven dwarfs director Alex Benjamin does a masterful job conjuring up the oversized, abundant world. His exhibitions of shadow puppetry (co-designed with cast member and noted dalang Emily Baldwin) range from smart to sweet to beautifully profound. His collaboration with props designer Elizabeth Meehan add a sense of tangibility and ingenuity as the Orvitz cobble together their shows from found objects left lying about in war torn europe, from a tennis racket “Magic Mirror” to lunch sacks that provide the rattle of a train. One of his most intriguing magicians tricks is how to distort his cast, which include several vertically advantaged actors, to appear to be no more that three or four feet tall. Like the Febland’s humor, Benjamin keeps you guessing and waiting for the next bright gift or punch to the gut.

But even the magic or writer and director might have been lost on us without the collection of mighty talents to lend the evening an immediacy and humanity.

Jenna Levin (Perla,) our Snow White and de facto heroine, is a tender creature, with a spring clear and daisy bright singing voice. She plays innocence well but comes into her own when rolling about on the floor recalling her infant state, or showcasing Snow’s love of the most unlikely creatures.

In complete contrast, Natalie Houchins (Rozika) has a gift for world weariness and snarkery. Her acerbic nibbling at her siblings, in and out of character, masks a set of psychological scars deep and gangrenous, that reveal themselves in moments of wide-eyed paralysis, or frenzied panic at being forced too fast, too soon back to the high wire act she performed under Mengele’s watch.

She is matched in cynicism and barbedness by Eva Victor (Freida) who swans about as the Wicked Stepmother and a very sardonic Happy. Whether she be skulking, simpering or devouring a gelatin heart, Victor never fails to serve her file sharp wit with a side of brilliant mumble-ship. Still, like Rozika, her hostility stems from deeper wounds and worries that have not yet been allayed by the still uncertain world.

To add a dash of levity to the mix, David Brown (Micki) proves himself perfectly suited to his role as the troop’s clown, bringing to Micki the self-awareness of Rodney Dangerfield and the plasticity of Hugh Laurie. His turn as multiple peasants and one truly woe-begotten wild boar are side splitting enough, but it takes a real talent to give the right spin to, and make us laugh unashamedly at, holocaust stand up.

Anne Martin (Elizabeth) excels as the pianist, foley artist and voice of reason amid the groups tumultuous antics. Her simply given but sunrise vivid remembrances of life when no one looked down on her family, give us much needed breathing space between gales of laughter and sharp intakes of horror. And, lest it be doubted, she can give as much tumult as any with her wisecracking portrayal of the magic mirror and nudgesome and winkfull Sneezy.

For slipperiness of character, Febland handed Emily Baldwin (Franziska) a real fishbone of a problem; and I am happy to report she makes a well strung harp of it. In a play that flies so heavily on the hummingbird wings of language, Franziska is introduced as “the quiet one” and never says a word throughout the whole hour performance. Though mainly in charge of metatheatrical magic of the show, as stage manager and musician, Baldwin’s articulate silence spark some of the loudest and frightening contentions in the play.

But perhaps the most tricky roll and the neatest execution of an exhibition in splendid acting lies with Nick Raef (Avram) patriarch of the troop and our guide to the evenings entertainment. Good natured and wry humored, Avram starts out as the counterpoint to Perla, the spirit of hope for the families future and an investor of our attention, indeed our affection. But in portraying not only the Queen’ murderous sweet Huntsman but the gentle Dr. Mengele himself, Raef, by tiny knife edged twists innocuous as a whistled tune or an apple bite, shows us just horrifying “good” men can be. And as the show goes on and the lines of story bleed together he lets us suspect that Avram might be the most dissembled Orvitz, and the most changed.

In describing his joy on meeting a family of seven dwarfs, a collection of the specimens he loved most to experiment with, Dr. Mengele lauds the Orvitzes as, “the stuff of fairytales”. Cute and kitschy as it may sound a fairytale is exactly what The Lilliput Troupe is, seemingly simple but fathom deep and infinitely complex, hilarious and dangerous as a wolf in a nightgown. Even the choice of story, Snow White, takes on a darker shape when you remember who at the time was actively pruning up, “the Fairest of them all”. But for all its darkness and violence, the play still holds on to the brightness of hope, and amid all its slapstick, it remains a most reverent retelling of the unbelievable heroic feats it took to live through those dark and mythic days. I wish, dear reader, I could go back again and again, to sit down and look up at the Ovitz family, not only as they were performed here but as they were in life, and puzzle through their shining humor, their secret pains. But I can’t and so I must say a blessing over Febland, thanking her for a chance to laugh, and weep and learn what it is to survive when the whole world is set to make you small.

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