Sunday, April 22, 2018

Review :Amazing Freedom Fighters of Amsterdam

By Ed Malin

Barbara Kahn's new historical play Verzet Amsterdam is running through April 22nd at Theater for the New City.  Roberto Gonzales Jr. and Barbara Kahn direct this exciting tale of ordinary people acting heroically. The title means "Resistance Amsterdam" and refers to a discreet group of anti-Fascists, some part-Jewish, some homosexual, some Communist, who did their best to help others and delay Nazi oppression circa 1943. Getting to see this show on Holocaust Remembrance Day only made it more poignant.
We are watching Frieda Belinfante (Steph Van Vlack),  a renowned cellist and proud lesbian,  forge identity cards.  She does this as much as she can, day and night, to give a chance to escape to Jews and other victims of the invading German racists and their Dutch police collaborators.  (The Belinfante family were of Jewish extraction; they extracted themselves from Portugal at the height of the Catholic oppression of the Jews and came to tolerant, Protestant Amsterdam.)   Following a secret knock, Frieda opens the door for her friend, artist and author Willi Arondeus (Robert Gonzales, Jr.) and for their associates, museum curator Willem Sandberg (Jared Johnston), composer Jan van Gilse (Steve Barkman) and Afro-Dutch Communist organizer Anton de Kom (Carl Ellis Grant).  The brave resistance fighters are afraid of betrayal and reluctant to let new people into their circle, so tonight will test their resolve.  Not only is sculptor Gerrit van der Veen (Christopher Lowe) invited to the meeting, but Frieda finds herself forging papers for a young, beautiful Jewess named Lina (Anya Krawcheck) who remembers being enchanted by Frieda's concerts.  Music written by Jan van Gilse features in the show.
photo by Joe Bly
Since early 1942, the Dutch police have been helping to enforce the second-class status of Jews.  Jews must wear a yellow star, may not take public transportation, cannot drive cars, can only shop at certain hours, must obey a curfew, etc.  Willi Arondeus, a defiant homosexual, is seen seducing a police officer (Paolo Solis) and, while they consume a choice bottle of wine that once belonged to a Jew, Willi discovers that the police will soon crack down on refugees with forged identity cards.  Amsterdam created a population registry just a few years before the Nazi invasion, and a thorough search of this registry will soon reveal who is living with fake papers.
The ring of resistance fighters each have their own reasons for risking their lives.  Anton de Kom, whose family is from the then-Dutch colony of Suriname, has lived through racial discrimination.  Lina stayed in Amsterdam to care for her sick grandmother, who has unfortunately passed away.  Lina wants to rejoin her family in London, but she is also romantically drawn to Frieda.  Frieda initially dismisses Lina's advances as compensating for the loneliness and horrors of war.  Lina answers with some of the most beautiful moments in the play. Is it worth living in hiding when there is a chance of helping others?  Those of the group who are able set out to bomb the Amsterdam registry.  This true story terrifying comes to life onstage.  Who among the main characters will survive?  Who will tell their stories?
If you've seen Barbara Kahn's work, you most certainly have learned something about the past and had fun doing so.  Gonzales and Kahn take a lot of risks with their direction, and the result is an engrossing show. The cast of Verzet Amsterdam features several "repeat offenders" who are very skilled at asking the important questions.  Right now, would you blow up a building to help innocent people from being deported?  It's startling that our country has to reckon with public displays of fascism, so I take inspiration from these characters.  The University of Suriname has been renamed in honor of Anton de Kom; Carl Ellis Grant gives an earnest performance that may show you why Communists took great risks to fight back. Robert Gonzales, Jr. is flamboyantly unforgettable as Willi Arondeus, and though I hadn't heard of him I am thrilled to hear he told his captors "Let it be known that homosexuals are not cowards." Steph Van Vlack is a tough, vivacious Frieda.  When her resolve is pushed to the limit, it is joyous to see her dance to the popular 1932 song "Bei Mir Bistu Shein" with the lovely Anya Krawcheck as Lina. The more that Willi and Frieda assert their LGBT identities, the freer they feel.  They even laughingly tell each other "oh what a splendid couple we would have made, I weren't a homosexual and you weren't a lesbian." I'm sure anyone can take a few pointers from these people who lived their best lives under such adversity.  Marc Marcante's set is big enough to allow for multiple locations; all show us the privations of war and the great joys of working together.  The lighting, also designed by Marc Marcante, often made me feel like I was in hiding, facing overwhelming odds.  Everett Clark's costumes help emphasize the dignity of these characters; there are a lot of nice bowties.  Joy Linscheid's sound design definitely enhances the play.  Like the Gestapo, I was not prepared to hear that explosion.