Miller's 'Time' a triumph of humanity over tragedy

Daily Arts Writer
Published March 28, 2007

At the end of the day, when people have been made prisoners, and another mass of people have been killed, the one thing that remains true for the female musicians of the Auschwitz concentration camp is their music, and the humanity it brings.

When renowned American playwright and University alum Arthur Miller said all of his plays attempted to "grab an audience by the throat and not release them, rather than presenting an emotion which you could observe and walk away from," he did more than just set a goal for himself as a writer. He set a goal for the audience to experience an emotion in the same way that the actor does. In Miller's "Playing for Time," the audience and the actors experience grief, fear and compassion as a unified body. As the first play to be performed in the newly constructed Arthur Miller Theatre in the Walgreen Drama Center, "Playing for Time" is a sold out show running from now through April 8.

"Playing for Time" isn't one of Miller's best-known plays, but it's fitting for the opening of the Arthur Miller Theater. Because many are unfamiliar with the play, it will be, in a sense, new for many audience members, just as experiencing the theatre will be for all.

"We also wanted to do a show that would allow us to incorporate the theatre, music and dance departments, and this building is a culmination of bringing those three departments together," said Robert Chapel, director and University alum.

Based on Fania Fenelon's memoir, "Playing for Time" tells the story of a half-Jewish and French cabaret singer and her experience during the Holocaust in Auschwitz, where she and a group of women offer their music in hopes of having her life spared another day.

After Fenelon and a group of women are appointed musicians to entertain the prisoners and Nazi officials, music begins to offer everyone an ironic beauty during an extremely dark time. For Fenelon and the women close to her, music becomes the guiding force of their will to survive, and allows them to feel strengthened and humanized in a time of war.

The actors behind these challenging roles needed to act, play an instrument and in some cases sing all at once. With months of voice lessons and musical training, cast members were able to claim their roles in a play that not only requires its actors to be multi-talented, but to willingly grasp the horrors of the Holocaust.

"To be able to portray a real woman who lived through this horrible experience is a real honor," Musical Theater senior Janine Divita said. "This is an incredibly demanding show - emotionally and physically - but I think it's the least I can do to pay my respects to Fania Fenelon."

"This play is about choice, and about what a person will do and how far a person will go in order to save one's life. These ethical questions make it universal in this regard," Chapel said.

For Fenelon, the war isn't only about being a woman or being a Jew, it's about being a human being. When discussing Mandel, who is in charge of Auschwitz's women, Fenelon said "what disgusts me is that a woman so beautiful can do the things she's doing. We are the same species and that is what is so hopeless about this whole thing."

Both women have entirely different views of the world, yet they are moved by music in the same way. Music doesn't choose who to transform, it will transform anyone who listens.

The selected musical pieces in the play are the result of combined efforts by Chapel, orchestrator Jerry DePuit, sound designer Henry Reynolds and musical director Bradley Bloom. Beethoven's "Symphony No. 5" and Gershwin's "The Man I Love" are among the chosen repertoire which parallel the tortuous nature of the period.

"Other musical excerpts chosen were based on the appropriate time period and how they would complement the dramatic moment," Bloom said.

At Auschwitz, music's ability to empower is a reflection of the invulnerable spirit of its makers. Miller's play is a memorial to these women and to the memory of the Holocaust.

Playing for Time

This and next Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., this and next Sunday at 2 p.m.

Sold out. Rush tickets available one hour before showtime

At the Arthur Miller Theatre