By Talia Greenberg
The Diary of Anne Frank is a difficult play both to watch and to perform. The audience is presented with two hours that represent years in the lives of a group of people – hitherto strangers – who are forced to live in close contact, have no privacy, and constantly fear the discovery that, for most of them, would lead to their deaths. The actors have to portray characters who never know a moment’s peace, whose fear and indignation weigh more strongly upon them every day, whose very smiles and laughter thinly disguise the bitterest of tears.
There are no real love scenes in the play, no great statements or deeds of passion. We simply watch a young girl get her first romantic kiss and then blissfully waltz around her claustrophobic quarters as though they were in a palace, kissing on both cheeks everyone she sees. The violence is completely unseen – we hear the voices of children playing metamorphose into screeching war planes, clanging bells, and the final dreaded thud of Nazi boots kicking down the Annex door. No actors portray “The Green Police” in this production – this is not their story, but Anne’s.
As Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in her introduction to the first published edition of the diary, “Today the shouting voice [of Hitler] is no longer heard, but daily more and more people of many tongues are repeating and reflecting on what Anne Frank had to say.”
The Hillel Kosher Dinner Theater’s production, which will be staged this month, is both a repetition of Anne’s words and a sensitive, emotional reflection on what they mean to us today. Done with sensitivity, warmth, and – yes – a great deal of humor, the production’s tender depiction of the Annex families’ trials and triumphs in the face of the most bitter cruelty really does convince us that Anne’s innocent young voice is louder than Hitler’s and that it really can overcome the deafening tramp of the Nazi marches – heard so often throughout the play – that threaten to drown it out.
The Diary of Anne Frank, though Howard Pippin’s first work on Hillel’s stage, is not his directorial debut. Having graduated from the University of Maryland’s theater program less than a year ago, the 23-year-old Pippin already has a formidable breadth of experience behind him. Although his scholarly concentration was more toward the acting than the directing side of drama, Pippin has steadily directed productions in the six years since he graduated from high school, in both his church and, for the last four summers, his own production company. He once combined both art forms, directing and acting, in the same production – an adventure which he does not regret but never intends to repeat. He will, however, always be caught between the two art forms: “I’m cursed!” he exclaims.
The Diary of Anne Frank is a show on which Pippin has long had his directorial eye. Though not himself a Jew, he learned about the Holocaust from contacts, through his Dutch Christian Church, with people who had hidden Jews during the war – one of whom will speak of the experience after the November 15 performance. The effect of these personal contacts on Pippin can be seen in the extreme detail with which he approaches the work.
While the production of the play is accurately set in World War II Holland, Pippin employs some non-traditional casting. In two cases in the play, a Jew plays a Gentile and a Gentile is a Jew. Pippins asserts that such casting is beneficial to the overall performance, in that he does not believe that any theater should be focused toward any particular audience. “Plays are an outreach to the community,” he says, “and actors perform better in non-traditional roles.” Pippin should know. In a recent production of Godspell, he played Jesus – probably the first black Jesus to be seen by most audiences – across a female Judas.
But the non-traditional casting is not all that is unusual about this production. It is done as a theater-in-the-round, with the audience watching from all sides. This facet contributes to the play’s overall sense of claustrophobia, making even more touching Anne’s turning toward her diary for her only source of privacy and contemplation.
As the audience observes in-the-round, so does Pippin direct, darting around all sides of the stage in order to view the action from every conceivable angle. Advice to the cast is not given within the usual domains of the audience seats, but on the stage, among the actors. Meaning, not technique, is stressed. If the actor listens to the meaning of the other actors’ words, he or she will want to respond naturally to their lines. “You have to trust this little game,” Pippin tells them. “It works.”
This production also “works.” Beautifully acted, sensitively rendered, the show is a must-see for anyone who believes in individual heroism over social cruelty. It will run from November 13 through 16.