All of the young people in The Children’s Republic were born after the year 2000, very far away from the Holocaust, and likely with no family memories of persecution of the Jews leading up to the Second World War. So it says a lot for their talent, and for the direction (by Christian Barry) of this play, that they can enter into lives so different from their own.
Janusz Korczak was the pseudonym of Dr. Henryk Goldszmit, a polish physician, writer and educator, who dedicated his life to the children in the orphanages under his care. As the lives of Jews became more and more difficult under the swastika and the boot in Warsaw, he became increasingly diligent in saving children from starvation and its related illnesses. In addition he educated them, taught them life skills, and ultimately stood with them on their last journey to ‘resettlement in the East’ – in other words the cattle trains to the death camps.
Hannah Moscovitch has written a powerful play about four of these children and their relationship with Korczak and his assistant. Kaitlin Hickey’s dismal lighting and Camellia Koo’s set and costume design prepare the stage for the mood of the play, and make the light shining from within the protagonists even more cogent. This new version of the play was commissioned by, and workshopped at, the Belfry.
Sophia Irene Coopman portrays Sara, a gifted violinist, who actually survives the war and goes on to become an acknowledged musician in Europe. She brings a quiet intensity to the role, and works well with Sari Alesh (a recent immigrant from Syria) who actually plays the violin on stage; and this music is an important and integral part of the production. Mettye, the impulsive pre-adolescent, is beautifully handled by Lily Cave; and her voice is strong even when she is not using a microphone. Simeon Sanford Blades is Misha, the bookworm (whom we last saw at the Belfry as Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol.) We are automatically drawn to his peacemaking presence. The most challenging role for a young person is the character of Israel, a troubled teenager who causes difficulty for everyone, but who desperately needs the love and care he receives from the Doctor. He is the one who goes out and finds food for the besieged legion of children, at the same time upsetting the moral law with which they are being raised. Zander Eke undertakes this complex character with a maturity beyond his years.
Kerry Sandomirsky as Stefa, the able administrator, teacher and nurse, is very effective, and her interaction with the children and with Korczak is kind, fair and wonderfully loyal. The role of Dr. Korczak is, of course, pivotal, and Paul Rainville portrays this enlightened and wise man with all the dignity and humility that is legendary. He could have got out of the ghetto on the strength of his education and position; but it was not in him to leave his young charges when they needed him the most.
If this all sounds depressing, be aware that there is humour in the dialogue from time to time, which saves The Children’s Republic from being totally dark.
If you are looking for light and fluffy entertainment, this is definitely not it. But if you want a piece of theatre that will challenge you and make you ponder the strength of the human spirit in times of unspeakable horror, then do not hesitate to pick up the phone and reserve your seats.
The Children’s Republic is on at the Belfry until October 8. Box office: 250-385-6815.