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      The Gift
    The present in the past

    Occasionally didactic but generally forceful and informative, "The Gift" is based on the true story of an American Jewish communist who risks his life on a rescue mission to Nazi Germany.


    Shauna Kanter's Holocaust drama "The Gift" receives its American premiere at the T. Schreiber Studio this month on 26th Street. This compelling World War II portrait of an American Jewish communist risking his life to enter Germany to rescue a photographer and her children is framed by the story of the hero's unromantic battle with cancer and his contentious relationship with his daughter decades later.

    Written and directed by: Shauna Kanter.
    Cast: Dane Anton Aska, Lee M. Buckman, Selena Cantor, Chris Carlone, Steve Coombs, Alix Dale, Laura K. Danilov ,Sabrina Dvorski, Lisa Flavin, Laura Gaspari, Irene Glezos, Liat Glick, Ie Alix Grossman, Diana Hird, Aimee Howard, Shane Jacobsen, Jesse Rider, Allyson Ryan, Gina Samardge, Sean Souza, Arley Tapirian and Tony Tenoglia.
    T. Schreiber Studio
    151 West 26th Street, 7th floor
    Previews start: March 13, 2003
    March 22 - April 13, 2003

    The daughter, played by the lovely Aimee Howard, is a stand-in for Kanter, who stumbled upon her father's secret past only after his death when she discovered a fake passport among his papers. Central to the play is the timely commitment of Kanter's father and mother — a stage manager and a ballerina — to live the politics they embrace. Forcefully portraying the author's heroic parents during wartime, Selena Cantor and Sean Souza drive the script forward and provide the link between the past and the present in this historically rooted family tale.

    Well directed by Kanter, the 22-person ensemble is uniformly strong and the play soars in its choreographed mass scenes where actors impersonate German crowds during wartime, lending their voices to the dissonant melodies of the accompanying musicians on stage. The drama opens cabaret-style in war-torn Berlin with a troupe of actors reading badly (in character) announcements for the Schreiber Studio. The waiflike Liat Glick as the young ingnue is particularly adorable here. The actors playing Germans speak with a German- accented English. The occasional Yiddish and German expressions used to layer the text work well and projected slides of Nazi terror dominate a sparse set and lend historical context to the personal story unfolding onstage.

    Much of the flavor of the play revolves around the hackneyed acting company. Together they perform a generic melodramatic scene with infectious relish. The photographer for the company (fiercely realized by Irene Glezos) has been taking secret photos of war crimes and thus becomes a prime candidate for the daring rescue. Her young daughters are perfectly recreated by Alix Dale and Gina Samardge. A birthday party for the head of the company (the kooky Lee Michael Buckman) — where the characters debate and largely choose to ignore the dangers of remaining in Germany — ends with the actors contorted on top of one another in an exacting image of the death camps to come.

    Later, it is revealed that the company performs in Yiddish. An opportunity is missed here to recreate an actual excerpt from a great Yiddish play (in translation). Chances are — especially with one of its members spouting Stanislavsky and having its home in the cultural center of Berlin where some of the most exciting new works (on both the Yiddish and German stages) debuted — this company would likely have been far more sophisticated than the old loveable hacks most mistakenly assume are synonymous with Yiddish theater and are portrayed here.

    Kanter has performed this play in Germany, France and the U.K. with a special emphasis on young audiences, and indeed the script does have a didactic quality. A scene featuring German officers persecuting Jewish civilians breaks into a triptych of monologues, written by contemporary high school students, relating their experiences with racism, a well-intentioned idea that doesn't quite work outside the classroom. At its best, however, "The Gift" is a drama both historically informative and theatrically engaging — well worth a look, especially for those uninformed about the genocides of regimes past and the reasons for the horrors of war throughout history and up to the present day.

    MARCH 28, 2003

    Reader comments on The Gift:

  • The Gift   from michaek sayers, Mar 31, 2003

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