Virginia S. Criste, creator of "Signs of Life," a musical drama that unfolds the true story of the Czech ghetto Theresienstadt, describes her work as "one of the most fascinating and least known stories of the Holocaust."
"I think this is a project that has been hard for some people to wrap their minds around," said Criste, who arrived in Chicago last week to help ready her new Chicago cast production at the Zacek McVay Theater at the Biograph, 2433 N Lincoln Ave., opening Wednesday and playing until Oct. 27.
"But what is experienced by the audience is something never forgotten."
Originally founded by the Nazis, she said Theresienstadt was specifically designated for the academic and artistic Jews of Europe. In an attempt to deceive the Red Cross and sway public perception, the Nazis decided to "beautify" the ghetto and commission a propaganda film. "Signs of Life" shows the struggles of the captives of Theresienstadt as they try to expose the truth through art and music--and in doing so, discover the humanity they all share.
Christe said the inception of the musical began when she chose to visit the ghetto Theresienstadt, located in what was then Czechoslovakia, to learn more about her grandparents, who spent their final years there.
At that time, there was only a small exhibit and a depository of artifacts that they allowed her to view in the company of a Museum official.
"When I was there, it was a year after the Berlin Wall fell, and I found myself spending a day with the remnants of hand-drawn posters announcing show performances, cabaret tickets, albums of dorm life, and so much more was hard to forget," Criste said.
She also admits writing a musical about captives living in a ghetto during the Holocaust was not easy. She said since it was a ghetto filled with artists, musicians and thespians, among others, a great deal of artwork that arose from Theresienstadt still exists today and served as her inspiration. Her production also incorporates a number of pieces from the original artwork.
"It is an important story because it was an event of tremendous importance to Jewish, European and Western history, and as such, is still important today, in knowing who we are and where we come from," said librettist Peter Ullian.
"That said, living in a time as fraught as ours, a time of peril, violence, authoritarianism, sectarianism and genocide, a story about people trying to hold on to what makes them human, to bear witness to horror, and to struggle to make difficult moral choices, has a strong contemporary resonance."
Criste said Chicago audiences are seeing the third incarnation of her work, which will be a unique and new interpretation of the previous productions and building on the same songs, scenes and characters.
"When 'Signs of Life' was first developed, it was in 2007 for the first regional production at the Village Theatre in Washington, where we brought it back in 2009," Criste said.
"Even right now, I've been working with the creative team, and we've been making changes. So what is seen in Chicago will not be the exact same musical previously seen. We've edited and taken out songs so we have final work that clocks in at about two hours with one intermission. This project has been an evolution."
It then played a run at the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater in 2010.
Criste said the set will also look vastly different this time, compared to the previous productions.
"In New York, the set was created by stacked suitcases," she said.
"For this Chicago run, we've recreated the performance space as it would have looked like for the artists at that time."
Lara Filip plays as Berta and the role of Kurt is played by Jason Collins, who Criste said has played the character in all of the previous runs. They are joined by Nathan Cooper, Brennan Dougherty, Matt Edmonds, Megan Long, Michael Joseph Mitchell, Doug Pawlik and James Rank.
Rounding out the Chicago creative team with composer Joel Derfner, lyricist Len Schiff and librettist Ullian, is director Lisa Portes and musical director Mike Pettry, as well as choreographer Julia Neary and Music Supervisor Paul Bogaev. The scenic and lighting design is by Brian Sidney Bembridge and costume design is by Elsa Hiltner, with sound design by Mikhail Fiskel and projection design by Anna Henson and orchestrations by Christian Imboden.