Most Jews today are well aware of the story of Anne Frank. Now, Alon Nashman wants to introduce us to another remarkable young woman hidden during the Holocaust era – Charlotte Salomon.
Salomon’s life is the central drama in Charlotte: A Tri-Coloured Play with Music, playing in Toronto on June 1 at Hart House Theatre before taking off on tour for Israel, Ukraine, and the Czech Republic.
While Anne Frank is known for her naïveté and innocence, remaining perpetually a young teen in our imagination, Salomon was already a young woman and accomplished artist when she fled her native Berlin for the south of France.
Tragically, Salomon’s story has one significant commonality with Anne’s: she was eventually deported to her death in Auschwitz. However, before leaving, she handed a bundle to a local physician with the words, “Take good care of this… it is my whole life.”
The bundle turned out to contain what some call the world’s first graphic novel: a sequence of nearly 800 paintings accompanied by text and musical references.
Salomon envisioned it being produced as a “singspiel,” or play with music, and that’s exactly what Nashman and his collaborators have tried to create in their production of Charlotte.
Nashman, an award-winning Canadian librettist, actor, and artistic director of the Theaturtle production company, describes Charlotte as a “chamber musical.” It is a collaboration between Nashman as librettist and performer, composer Brezina from the Czech Republic, and U.K. scenographer Pamela Howard.
Nashman first encountered Salomon’s work in an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario. “I was mesmerized by her work as an artist and a storyteller,” he said. “It’s a very personal exposé of that moment in history when the walls were closing in on her family and their life.”
Nashman sees her story, like Anne Frank’s, as a coming-of-age tale, with all the absurdity and romance of late adolescence and early adulthood.
He says her paintings cried out to be brought to life. “From the beginning,” Nashman said, “she envisioned it as a performance. In the first few pages, you see the curtains parting, you see a list of the characters, as if you’re entering the theatre.
“As a theatre person, I responded to it immediately,” he said “I thought to myself, I had to realize her vision.”
The production debuted in 2017 at Toronto’s Luminato festival, where it earned glowing reviews. From there, it travelled to Taiwan for the World Stage Design “Scenofest.”For many audience members in Taiwan, drawn by the production’s unique and elaborate stage design, this was their first time confronting the particulars of the Holocaust.
“They were reading it in Chinese in surtitles, they were weeping. Young people, old people, weeping and understanding in a sense for the first time the enormity of what had taken place.”
Since then, Nashman has been refining the production. He describes working on Charlotte as one of the greatest challenges of his long and accomplished theatre career. “It’s been one of the most complex and difficult things I’ve ever done, but the rewards are so great.
“We’re dealing with art at the highest level, interpreted by [Howard,] one of the great theatre artists of our time. To realize that on stage and make all those colours, all those images, vibrant and real and lived-in… To make all this music in its complexity… and then rehearsing, getting it all ready for an audience.”
The show’s Israeli performances on June 21 and 22 will take place as part of Jaffa Fest, organized by Gesher Theatre to highlight a curated selection of local and international productions. Nashman met and connected with Gesher’s executive director when the company was in Toronto last fall at the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre with its production of The Dybbuk.
For Nashman, Salomon remains an incredible statement of resistance to tyranny. “She blows the lid off our preconceptions. What was it like for a young woman growing up in Berlin to see the structures of her life crumble?
“I think people are going to be blown away by this fresh perspective on events we think we know so well.”
Charlotte plays at Hart House Theatre in Toronto on June 1 at 2 p.m.
www.theaturtle.com. For a short video clip and to view selections from the production’s costume and set designs, visit https://www.theaturtle.com/charlotte.html