Witness the Power of Witnesses’ World Premiere Production
by Cassiopeia Guthrie, July 18, 2022
“Don’t lose heart, my friends - go out and find our tales… when the fear begins, don’t lose heart.” These are the words of Yitskhok Rudashevski, murdered by Germans in the Ponary Forest in October 1943 at age 16. Witnesses, in its breathtaking world premiere with CCAE running through July 30, uses entries and phrases straight from personal diaries to tell Yitskhok’s tale and those of four other teenagers living in, growing through, and ultimately dying during the Holocaust. And, to put it as clearly as possible, this production is a must-see in its debut.
Conceived by Jordan Beck with book by Robert L. Freedman, music by Carmel Dean, Matt Gould, Adam Gwon, Anna K. Jacobs, and Gerald Sternbach, and lyrics by Jordan Beck, Mindi Dickstein, Matt Gould, Adam Gwon, and Anna K. Jacobs, Witnesses is a collaborative masterpiece which brings to life the actual stories of Moshe Flinker, Eva Heyman, Dawid Rubinowicz, Renia Spiegel, and Rudashevski. In a post-show talk back, lyricist and CCAE Theatricals Managing Producer Beck shared the process of acquiring the diaries of the teenagers and commissioning the songs from the artists, each from a different writer in order to best invest in and portray the voices of the five different children.
This is done with great success and, despite the unique stylings of each writer, the Klezmer orchestration and book by Sternbach and Freedman perfectly weave the stories together. Standout songs in the production include the titular “We Will All Be Witnesses,” “Agi Says,” and “Even in the Darkest Moments.” The latter is characterized by intense and dense chord structure, perfectly setting the tone for the production’s inevitable devastating climax.
One thing that is particularly notable about this production is the way that it so successfully takes audiences on a journey from the innocence of childhood through the early days of shifting public sentiment. The children sing about the first time that they have to wear the Jewish badge, the restriction of small privileges as a precursor to any whatsoever, and, heartbreakingly, how each child’s story ends. The audience knows what is coming… the sinking feeling is pervasive from the very moment that the actors enter what is implied to be a Holocaust Museum. Yet, somehow, they become invested in those small, beautiful moments, just like those that could be experienced by any child of any era, only to watch the inescapable outcome materialize at long last.
The drama is built not only through the music and script, but also through the incredible performances of the cast. Leads/diarists Giovanny Diaz De Leon (Dawid), Austyn Myers (Yitskhok), Kai Justice Rosales (Moshe), Afra Sophia Tully (Eva) and Camille Umoff (Renia) are outstanding. Each actor embodies the characteristics of their diarist with intention: Umoff’s Renia is utterly believable in her slight awkwardness and the uncertainty she carries being so far away from her mother in Warsaw, and her vocals are layered and rich while Tully’s Eva reads as young and naive, and her lovely voice is pure and resonant in all of the right ways. Myers as Yitskhok is marvelous at conveying the truth that simply the act of keeping the stories alive is its own resistance, and his soaring vocals are flawless - “Bundles” is particularly heartwrenching. Rosales’ Moshe is a delight in “The Typing Song” and “Before It’s Over” and Diaz De Leon is brilliant as Dawid, shining particularly in “Fox in the Field” and “Like in a Film.” The cast is rounded out by a talented ensemble including Ian Dembek, Hannah Frederick, Katherine Paladichuk, and swings David Landis and Priya Richard.
Each of these performances is further enhanced by blocking, lighting, choreography, set, and costuming details: a door lifts from the stage deck for an immediate yet minimalist scene change, concrete walls roll down to enclose the previously open (and beautifully lit!) set, and actor operated set pieces are built into the brilliant use of the turntable and integration of tableau. Base costumes begin to demonstrate significant wear as the story unfolds. The visual impact of these elements is undeniably powerful. Director J. Scott Lapp has assembled and helmed an incredible creative team and they have knocked it out of the park with this one.
Witnesses is a work of art and not to be missed. It brings a heartbreaking chapter of our history to life and then charges audiences to consider what they will do with the weight of knowing. As actor Austyn Myers beseeched in the post-show talkback, “Please spread the word… not for our sake, but for the sake of these kids so that this revolution can continue.”
This world premiere production runs for two weeks with evening performances on July 21, 22, 23, 28, 29, and 30 at 7:30 p.m and matinees on July 23, 24, 29, and 30th at 2 p.m; tickets can be found at www.artcenter.org.
Published: Escondido Times-Advocate, July 19.