Originally written for and published on BroadwayWorld.com
“Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.”
The famous diary of Anne Frank has been recreated, republished, and reproduced in perhaps every form imaginable. Since its original publication in Amsterdam in 1947, The Diary of a Young Girl has been translated into over 67 languages, with over 30 million copies sold to this day. It has inspired the 1955 Tony Award-winning play, The Diary of Anne Frank (revived on Broadway in 1997), and the 1959 film version under the same name. The University of Texas’ Department of Theatre and Dance kicks off their 2015-2016 theatrical season with the famed play.
For those unfamiliar, the play inspired by the diary follows 13-year-old Anne Frank (Ellie Dubin), her father, Otto (Eli Weinberg), her mother, Edith (Izabella Arnold), and her sister, Margot (Kristen Raney), as they take refuge in the attic of an office building in 1942 to escape the Nazis invasion of Amsterdam. Joined by family friends Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan (Ian Price and Baylie Figueroa, respectively) and their 16-year-old son, Peter (Robert Di Donato), as well as local dentist Mr. Dussel (Jadon Hatley), the eight Jews must survive on rationed food, immense quiet and never-ending fear, all with only the help of friends Miep (Natalie Patton) and Mr. Kraler (Chance Steward), for close to two years.
While I will make the safe assumption that, based on history itself and the well-known story that is Anne Frank and the Holocaust, the majority of readers and theatregoers are familiar with the play’s ending, for the sake of spoilers I will cautiously label before revealing any plot points.
Dubin’s portrayal of Anne is stunning. The young actress attacks the part of Anne head-on, with an intense charisma that is nothing if not contagious. Dubin’s performance makes you often forget you are watching a true, historical story that (spoiler) inevitably ends in despair. Her infectious representation of a carefree, naïve, and sometimes ignorant young teenager is something to be admired. While Weinberg’s Otto Frank hits the nail on the head during the play’s more somber moments, his attempt at the more joyous scenes makes me think of a young boy attempting to play a believable grown up (which, in his complete defense, is exactly what is happening here). His scenes with Dubin, however, ignite a familiar and comforting spark to those that know a lovable father/ daughter relationship.
Di Donato’s Peter is one of the highlights of the production. With a mix of relatable awkwardness and unintentional humor, he brings to life a frustrated, slightly shy 16-year-old forced to live with two young girls, with merely the solace of his cat to bring him some sliver of familiarity. His moments with Dubin are fantastic, as are his interactions with the rest of the cast. Raney’s Margot, as well, is wonderful. I only wish her character had- if not more speaking lines- more highlighted moments onstage.
Stealing the spotlight is Figueroa, with her loud and dramatic portrayal of Mrs. Van Daan. Her performance as the somewhat entitled and spoiled housewife gives the play the equal combination of laughter and tears it needs. While the audience often wants to wring her neck, they also often want her continue with whatever comedic spiel she is currently of on a tangent with- and that makes a wonderfully dimensional character.
The first thing noticed upon entering the theatre is scenic designer David Molina-Garza’s fantastic set. A two story reimagining of the famed attic, not one detail is lost. The one downfall, if any, to the beautiful staging, was the use of walls (or lack thereof). The attic, as explained by Otto at the play’s beginning, was divided into rooms. Of course, the use of actual walls provides every theatregoer’s worst nightmare- lack of vision to the action, but the use of no walls at all was a bit confusing. It took me half the play to realize the attic wasn’t just one open space, but rather several rooms. While I have no suggestions as to how to rectify that, perhaps more obvious action by the actors would have solved the problem. Not detrimental at all, I must add, to the overall production, however. Also worth mentioning is the heart wrenching and emotion-inducing sound design of Ben Campbell.
Dr. Brant Pope’s direction holds several promising creative choices, most of which are executed successfully. Using the more popular aspect of projection, Anne’s words are often written across the top of the stage to match her narration, packing more punch to the young girl’s truthful, and often shocking, words. The use of historical Nazi and Holocaust footage on said projection to illustrate what is happening in the outside world, while the group is in hiding, both peaks and valleys throughout the course of the 2 hour and 50 minute production. While its purpose is obvious, to show the horrors of the war to the audience and brace them for what may be coming, its use during scene transitions tacts on some unnecessary time to the show that slows down its pace immensely.
(Potential spoilers below)
When it does work, however, is during the show’s magnificent ending, when the projection is used to show the horrors of the concentration camp, and silently illustrate how each beloved member of the cast met their untimely fate. Timed perfectly to each character’s departure from center stage (where Otto Frank stands solemnly, tragically remembering each friend and family member), Pope’s choice of ending left the audience with not one dry eye in the house. His ending was powerful, refreshing, and vastly effective.
Overall, Texas Theatre and Dance’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank is three hours well spent at the theatre. Rich in history, and supplemented by an energetic and talented cast, along with creative and engaging direction, the performance leaves very little to be desired, especially in terms of a college production. Those familiar with the story will enjoy Dubin’s refreshing portrayal of the optimistic young Anne; while those new to her diary will relish in the story told around the world- and told just as wonderfully right here in Austin, Texas.
The University of Texas’ Theatre & Dance production of The Diary of Anne Frank runs at the Oscar G. Brockett Theatre October 9, 10, 13-17 at 7:30PM, and October 10, 11, 17, and 18 at 2:00PM. Tickets can be purchased at texasperformingarts.com.