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Holocaust Operetta Makes English Language Debut at USM

Look up the word "operetta" in the dictionary and it said something like, "short opera, usually on a light or humorous theme," not the kind of words you would necessarily associate with a subject like the Nazi Holocaust. Nevertheless, the University of Southern Maine Theatre Department is making that connection in its latest, ground-breaking production, called In The Underworld. It was written in French many years ago. In Gorham, USM is staging the English language world premiere of the work.

Meghan Brodie: "It is a darkly comic operetta about life in the Ravensbruck concentration camp, a concentration camp in northern Germany during World War II. My name is Meghan Brodie, I'm an assistant professor of theater and a faculty member in the Women and Gender Studies Department at USM. It's a strange piece, because one wouldn't typically think of a Holocaust operetta as comic at all."

Tom Porter: "There's probably not many other Holocaust operettas out there, are there?" Meghan Brodie: "I'm not aware of any other Holocaust operettas. Plays, yes. Operettas, not so much."

In The Underworld was written under extraordinary circumstances by one of the inmates at Ravensbruck, an all-female camp. Brodie commissioned an English translation of the work after initially reading it in French.

She was struck, among other things, by its powerful message of defiance. "I think it is such a fantastic historical and artistic artifact that I think should be accessible to English-speaking audiences."

In The Underworld is a mixture of dialogue, singing and dancing, and draws inspiration from French folk and classical music. The woman who wrote it, Germaine Tillion, was not a playwright, but an a noted anthropologist. When war came she joined the French resistance, and in 1943 found herself interned in Ravensbruck.

Tillion wrote In The Underworld during her time there, partly as a way of entertaining the other inmates. She risked her life writing it, but, for some reason, chose not to share her creation with the world after the war. Tillion resumed her academic career and kept the operetta locked away at home for 60 years, the work was first performed in 2007, a year before Tillion's death, at age 100.

"I think it's a really important work. It's extremely excited to be a part of any show that's new and fresh," said Elinor Strandskov, one of the 11 female cast members. She's preparing to go into final dress rehearsals, wearing the ragged uniform of a camp inmate. The character she plays is newly arrived at the camp, so Strandskov had to shave her head for the role.

"Emotionally this last week of going into tech and going into our final dress rehearsals, and putting on the make-up and putting on the clothing and the uniforms, and being there under lights - it can be really hard to take that off at the end of the night," Strandskov said.

"I've learned a lot of history," said Madelyn James. "Just from participating in this play I found out so much information about the Holocaust and World War II, and all these camps and all the women that were in them."

James is preparing for the role of the narrator. She said it's her first experience of singing on stage. She also has a lot of lines to learn. "If you look at my script and lines that I've highlighted, I should have just highlighted lines that weren't mine," James said.

Leading the production's nine-piece orchestra is musical director Jonathan Marro, who graduated from USM in 2012. He spent much of the last few months adapting the translated song lyrics to fit with the music, painstaking work, he said, as it often meant having to completely re-write the lyrics without changing their meaning.

"Running my fingers through the Thesaurus and dictionaries and rhyming dictionaries, trying to find the right lyrics to fit the songs," Marro said. "It was complicated, but it was also pretty rewarding at the end of the day."

"I am so excited. I am also eager to see how audiences react to it," said Director Meghan Brodie. She said In The Underworld contains some moments which are truly uncomfortable, including a joke about the concentration camp being fitted with gas heating.

"We tried not to shy away from the dark humor and those moments, but it also is ultimately, I think, a story of hope and about the solidarity of these women in these particular circumstances," Brodie said. "So more than anything else, I'm eager to share it with others and see what sort of conversation it sparks."

In The Underworld premieres tonight at 7:30 at USM's Gorham campus, and plays through April 27.