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'Once Upon A Time,' Debuts

This article is more than 11 years old.

The Nobel Laureate, scholar, and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel is famous for his searing essays, memoirs, and reality-inspired works of fiction.

In Boston tonight, though, a previously unknown play, written by Wiesel almost 40 years ago, is being staged in America for the first time.

WBUR's Andrea Shea explores "Once Upon A Time."

ANDREA SHEA: While his play is set in a Jewish ghetto during World War II, Elie Wiesel has said it's not about the Holocaust. Still, director Guila Clara Kessous says the plot and themes in 'Once Upon a Time' are heavy.

GUILA CLARA KESSOUS: It's dealing with human responsibilities when someone has to decide who to kill.

ANDREA SHEA: That someone is a young Jew named Daniel. His plight unfolds when a Nazi commander randomly picks him...and two other men...out of a crowd. Then he tells Daniel to kill one. If he doesn't comply the commander will murder thirty of Daniel's neighbors. While this game is brutal...and raises questions about sacrificing a single life to save many...Kessous says Wiesel's play is as much about hope as it is about cruelty, death and despair.

GUILA CLARA KESSOUS: Inside of the ghetto even if the people were scared they were still loving each other, hating each other, and this idea of those people continuing having feelings that unite them no matter what was very interesting, to see that humanity was still here.

ANDREA SHEA: Kessous says it's also interesting that while Wiesel wrote this play in 1968...for a French radio's never been staged or translated into English. Until now. Kesouss...a 28 year-old native of also a PhD candidate at Boston University...where Wiesel teaches. When the professor presented his French text to Kessous she says...

GUILA CLARA KESSOUS: Mr Wiesel gave me more-or-less carte-blanch. I let him know about the cast, I told him of course to let me know if there was something he wanted me to change, but he let me terribly free (laughs) terribly free, and that was the scary part and the most interesting part also.

ANDREA SHEA: With that freedom Kessous is turning what she calls a 'found treasure' into something she refers to as 'absolute theater'...with video projection, music, dance, sound effects, audio recordings.

Music and reading from the play

ANDREA SHEA: The cast that includes professional actors, students, a rabbi, Holocaust survivors...and the children of Holocaust Survivors. Here's Yankel Polak playing Frank, the resistance leader in the ghetto.

SCENE FROM PLAY: 'People in the ghetto were dying of hopelessness, disgusting diseases, solitude and heartbreak, but I was happy, almost content. I was helping to make, to remake, history. At the very heart of this horror I remained pure, just and innocent.

ANDREA SHEA: For Polak the chance to act in Wiesel's play has given him the chance to connect to his father, who was a baby during the Holocaust.

YANEK POLAK: For me growing up and seeing pictures of children in the concentration camps or in the ghettos is always something I would try to imagine myself in that place, so now having this opportunity to really work on putting myself into this character and into the ghetto I almost feel like I belong there and I'm having the opportunity in a sense to really live what I know most my family have gone through.

Sound of Nazi boots clomping

ANDREW BENJAMIN: At first I didn't think it was going to be as hard to play a Nazi Commander.

ANDREA SHEA: That's Andrew Benjamin.

ANDREW BENJAMIN: Any prejudices I had I had to push them aside. I had to portray this character as if I was just playing a father of a two year-old. I had to portray him as a human being.

ANDREA SHEA: To that end Benjamin took his director's advice and watched Nazi propaganda films.

ANDREW BENJAMIN: I think it's fair to say that they were the rock stars of the time because they presented themselves in such a way that was larger than life and on stage I had to make sure I present that but also make sure that I don't go over the top so it become something like Hogan's heroes, Colonel Klink kind of thing.

ANDREA SHEA: While Benjamin and much of the cast in 'Once Upon a Time' are Jewish Amy Bettina isn't. She says playing Alyshka, a young woman in the ghetto, was tough because part of an actor's job is to relive what their character is suffering.

AMY BETTINA: So I had to stop trying to connect my own bad experiences and some of the worst experiences I've ever had and admit that nothing that I've ever experienced and probably will ever experience I hope anything like the Jews experienced during the Holocaust.

ANDREA SHEA: Director Guila Clara Kessous says presenting this play during Hanukkah is a powerful reminder for everyone.

GUILA CLARA KESSOUS: So I thought it was a marvelous idea to be lighting a candle no only for the victims of the Shoah but also realize how precious is life and when the life is preserved we should all together celebrate no matter what.

ANDREA SHEA: Kessous says the play's premiere is also a tribute to Professor Elie Wiesel...and his life's work. In fact, Wiesel will be at the performance tonight and Kessous says she...and the cast...are very excited to hear what he thinks of their interpretation.

For WBUR I'm Andrea Shea.

The play, "Once Upon A Time" is currently scheduled for one performance only, Monday night at the Tsai Center at Boston University. For information, click on the links below.

This program aired on December 10, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.


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