The Escape Act: A Holocaust Memoir
Reviewed – 23 September 2019
“a truly unique telling of a heart-breaking Holocaust story”
As the audience enters the theatre, a woman in a red dress sits on a stool facing away brushing her hair, apparently preparing for her performance. But was it for our performance of The Escape Act: A Holocaust Memoir, or for the character’s show within the story? This play, based on real-life events and directed by Shoshana Bass, explores the story of Irene Danner-Storm, a half-Jew born into a family of circus performers, who at the age of eighteen upon witnessing injustice to Jews in her home town decides to join a touring circus to escape. The circus, full of society’s “others”, becomes a second family to her. Irene’s Jewish identity is second to her performance abilities, and the circus master Adolph Althoff makes a pledge to protect her from the Nazis in Germany.
However, not only is the character of Irene an adept performer, but the actress and writer of the play, Stav Meishar, is also talented in many different forms of performance art. She also has the task of being the only performer in this one-woman show, where mostly all the other characters are acted out by Meishar in a variety of ways. The performer brings beautifully carved puppets (Valerie Meiss) to life as her fellow circus performers, where their camaraderie through their changing world becomes evident. Comedic moments in the first half of the play are not overly funny but light and respectful due to the overall subject manner, although slightly more humour could provide a greater contrast between events that are happier and those that are heart-breaking. Irene’s family is presented in a battered suitcase that transforms into a quaint dolls house, where the family members are constructed from printed wooden illustrations. These moments between Irene and her family are touching, and the events and persecution they face truly hit home. There are also some occasions where characters played on stage talk to pre-recorded voices of Nazi officers and other characters. These may have come across better if played out by the performer, although the separation of the Nazi characters into disembodied voices does highlight a difference in their humanity.
The play reaches its emotional peak in the second half, where Meishar takes to the trapeze as Irene lives out the horrors surrounding her. Irene’s anguish is stunningly balanced with the Meishar’s swinging and tumbling, producing a strikingly beautiful piece of acrobatic theatre. Meishar’s acting also reaches a peak in these moments and her performance as a confident yet vulnerable young woman is completely believable. The lone swinging of the character on the trapeze, lit simply by a single white light, emphasises her helplessness and emotional isolation.
Irene’s story, however, is not the only one to be told throughout the play. Meishar’s own personal family history is also delved into throughout the performance as her grandparents were personally affected by the Holocaust and sent to concentration camps. The parallels and differences between the family history and performance art background of the performer and character become apparent throughout. Moments where Meishar breaks the fourth wall to talk about her own background do not feel forced and provide additional context to the play, and her own emotional outpouring feels completely real.
This powerful telling of a young woman’s escape from Nazi Germany is emotionally and respectfully presented in an inventive blend of theatre and circus. Parallels between the performer’s own family history and the character’s make this a truly unique telling of a heart-breaking Holocaust story.
Reviewed by Philip Coatsworth
Photography by Gaia Putrino
The Escape Act: A Holocaust Memoir
Jacksons Lane until 24th September
Previously reviewed at this venue: