GORHAM, Maine – The University of Southern Maine (USM) Department of Theatre has announced the cast for “In the Underworld,” a darkly comic operetta written by Germaine Tillion, a French ethnologist and Holocaust survivor who wrote the script while imprisoned in Ravenbrück concentration camp for women in World War II Germany.
USM will present the English-language world premiere of “In the Underworld,” which debuted in France in 2007. The USM Department of Theatre commissioned this English-language translation from Annie and Karl Bortnick. Tillion wrote the script in a tiny notebook while imprisoned at Ravenbrück; a fellow prisoner smuggled the script out of the camp and then returned it to Tillion when Tillion was released.
The dark comedy, which is reality-based fiction, focuses on the concentration camp and the prisoners; it is a brutally honest story about a time of genocide and survival.
Five cast members, all USM students, will shave their heads for their roles in the production, and the remaining six cast members will cut their hair short.
The motivation of the students to alter their physical appearances is one of many indications and methods of their dedication to the production and of their respect for the people on whose lives the story is based, according to the operetta’s director.
"I think this has been, and will continue to be, a tremendous learning experience for everyone working on this project, especially the students,” said Meghan Brodie, director of the production and USM assistant professor of theatre. “The Holocaust is not an abstraction, and there is no way a couple of pages in a textbook can adequately convey the horrors of this period in history.
“As an artist and educator, I want to inspire my students to remember rather than repeat the past and to understand the power they have to affect change in the world,” Brodie continued. “Tillion's play has provided all of us with an opportunity for a transformative experience."
The cast of 11 USM students began “table work” meetings in December, working with Brodie to study the script and research its historical connections and to develop the foundations of their characters.
“Last week, we got together to watch a documentary about Ravenbrück,” she said. “It was a difficult shared experience, but important for really understanding the world we are depicting on stage.”
Caroline O’Connor of Wells, who plays the role of Nenette, has been deeply affected by her preparation for the production.
“The reading I've done, the documentaries we've watched, the dialogues we've had as a cast, and the commitment our group of women has made to this project has humbled me to the point where I feel like a child, and exhausted me to the point where I feel like I'm 200 years old,” she said. “I can't get enough, honestly.”
Madelyn James of Nasha, N.H., who plays the role of the “Naturalist,” has found the experience “extremely educational.”
“Sometimes it is mind-boggling how strong the survivors are and how horrible the conditions were for them,” James said. “Everything I learn from working on this play makes me want to do the best work possible so that I can help audience members learn as much as I have.”
O’Connor, along with Mary Kate Ganza, Clare McKelway, Hannah Perry and Elinor Strandskov, play characters who are new to the concentration camp, and all will shave their heads for their roles.
“The difference between my choice to cut my hair and the character's loss of hair is that I consented to it, while the woman I'll be portraying did not,” O’Connor said. “Above all, I'm approaching the role with respect, always remembering that the character's experiences parallel those of a real woman.”
The rest of the cast, which includes Callie Cox, Helena Crothers-Villers, Viginia Hudak, Madelyn James, Sable Strout and Rhiannon Vonder Haar, play characters who have been in the camp for a longer period of time.
The cast includes (by name, role, year, major, hometown):
- Callie Cox (Marmotte): sophomore theatre major, Ellsworth;
- Helena Crothers-Villers (Lulu of Belleville): sophomore vocal performance major, Brunswick;
- Mary Kate Ganza (Titine): senior theatre major, Waterville;
- Virginia Hudak (Lulu of Colmar/Annette): senior music education major, Saco;
- Madelyn James (Naturalist/Marie-Anik): senior theatre major, Nashua, N.H.;
- Clare McKelway (Lise/Bebe): sophomore theatre major, Belgrade Lakes;
- Caroline O’Connor (Nenette): senior sociology and women's studies major, Wells;
- Hannah Perry (Marguerite): senior theatre major, Hartford;
- Elinor Strandskov (Rosine): junior theatre major, Minneapolis, Minn.;
- Sable Strout (Havas): senior vocal performance major, Richmond;
- Rhiannon Vonder Haar (Dede of Paris): sophomore vocal performance major, Bar Harbor.
Jonathan Marro, a USM alumnus, class of 2012, is the music director of the production and also adapted the Enlish lyrics. Maria Tzianabos, USM instructor of dance, is the choreographer. Shannon Zura, USM assistant professor of theatre, is the lighting and scenic designer, and Joan Mather, USM assistant professor of theatre, is the costume designer. The music was arranged and composed by Christophe Maudot. Generous support has been provided by the Dimmer-Bergstrom Fund.
“In the Underworld” will be staged April 18-27 at Russell Hall on the USM Gorham campus. Tickets go on sale one month prior to opening night.