Uplifting play celebrates the power of art and memory at Venice Theatre

by: Marty Fugate, Staff Writer, The Observer Group

Celeste Raspanti’s “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” is now on stage at Venice Theatre. It takes its inspiration from the poems and drawings of the children of Terezín, Czechoslovakia. Or, as the Nazis called it, Theresienstadt. It’s an uplifting tale with a very sad story behind it.

In 1780, a Habsburg emperor built a walled garrison town in what is now Czechoslovakia. He named it Terezín in honor of his mother, Empress Maria Theresa. But the name would prove less than honorable. Following the Nazi occupation of 1939, the Nazis turned Terezín into a concentration camp. The Nazis marketed the ghetto as a “model Jewish settlement” in stage-managed inspections for the Red Cross and a now-lost propaganda film. Gullible outsiders saw a place of concerts, poetry readings and art exhibits. In reality, Terezín was a transit camp for Jews destined for Treblinka, Auschwitz and other extermination camps, and a place of starvation and death in its own right.

15,000 children went into the Terezín concentration camp; fewer than 100 came out alive. “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” takes us into their hearts and minds—and not by imagination alone. Raspanti’s play draws on the children’s own words. The fact that she could is a miracle in its own right.

Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, a Bauhaus artist, taught secret art classes and collected her children’s drawings — 4,000 of them. One of her students put them in two suitcases, along with many poems. The art teacher didn’t survive, but the drawings and poems did. They were lost for a time, then discovered 10 years after the war. Another small miracle.

The play unfolds from the real-life Raja Englanderova’s (Haley Faye) point of view. We see her life at home, in vivid scenes with her father (Ric Goodwin), mother (Amy Pickens) and brother Pavel (Nick Winkelmeyer). Then, she’s taken with her family to Terezín. Raja watches the trains come and the people she loves vanish. Most of her family first. Then she falls in love with a lad named Honza (Brady Cooper.) He’s taken too, along with the art teacher (Cheryl Andrews), her brother Pavel, his wife of one hour, Irca (Anna Sand-Lambert) and the Rabbi (Bennett Gross) who married them. But Raja survives.

The play begins with a litany of the lost—a blunt list of names and dates. But the playwright goes beyond the impersonal statistics. Raja’s days are defiantly normal, full of stolen conversations with her art teacher, her brother and her friends. Snatches of poems and diary entries intersperse Raja’s quotidian experience. Again, nothing grandiose. Just day-to-day human stuff. But that’s what counts.

Murray Chase directs with an understated touch. He keeps the focus on human life in an inhuman place. The Nazi threat stays in the background—like a Luger constantly pointed at your head. Scenic designer Brian Freeman sets the tone with a warren of chicken wire and a passageway of piled-up suitcases. Chelsea Sorenson’s patchwork costumes silently speak of a life on the run. The young actors (many from Venice Theatre’s education program) nicely evoke the people trapped in an inhuman world—and their constant struggle to keep their humanity.

In the play, Raja’s character is a survivor without a trace of survivor’s guilt. She’s driven by the responsibility of memory. The Nazis wanted to erase the inmates of Terezín. She’s determined to make them fail. The people of Terezín are people, not victims. They care about art, poetry, love and family. Despite the oppression, they live their day-to-day human lives. That’s what Raja wants us to remember. Hana Volavkova, the editor of the book the play is based on, does too.

After seeing Raspanti’s play, you’ll leave with its vivid characters burned in your brain. It’s powerful evening of theater, and it’s surprisingly uplifting.

That memory is a victory of its own.