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NEW YORK REVIEW: The Last Cyclist

Published by: Cameron Lowe on 4th Jun 2013 | View all blogs by Cameron Lowe

By Lucy Komisar in New York

“The Last Cyclist” is fascinating in its conception and existence as a satirical political cabaret put on in 1944 by prisoners of the Theresienstadt concentration camp 40 miles from Prague. While suffering from unspeakable hunger, grueling forced labor and other horrors, inmates presented original plays for their fellows to see late nights in building attics.

Judged as an ordinary a piece of theater, the play falters because with one, perhaps two, exceptions, most of the performers are amateurish. On the other hand, the original in the camp also mixed professionals and amateurs, so perhaps this production provides verisimilitude.

Jenny Lee Mitchell as Ma'am and Eric Emil Oleson at the Rat, photo Carol Rosegg.

Jenny Lee Mitchell as Ma’am and Eric Emil Oleson at the Rat, photo Carol Rosegg.

The work was written and directed by Karel Svenk, a Czech playwright, director and comic actor who would be murdered in Auschwitz. It has been pieced together by Naomi Patz, basing much of her work on the recollections of Jana Sedova, an actress who performed in the play and survived the Holocaust.

The absurd parable is structured on a play within a play being put on by members of a lunatic asylum. The meme is that terrible things are happening and the Nazi provocateurs ask who is to blame.

The putative Nazis are caricatured by Jenny Lee Mitchell, as Ma’am, in black coat and black fingernails which she raises to just below her nostrils to approximate Hitler’s moustache. Mitchell is a brilliant satirical performer as she holds up a red air pump and proclaims “Death to Cyclists,” then marches around kicking her feet Nazi style. She declares, “All cyclists must be exiled to Horror Island, where they will be starved to death while they slave for the greater glory of … me!”

Imagine these words spoken at a Nazi concentration camp! The connection was not subtle. The play starts out broadsided. Hitler, not yet in power, addresses a crowd at a Bavarian beer hall. “My fellow citizens, our country is in crisis. We must rid ourselves of the monstrous perversion that is destroying society. Who is to blame for all our troubles? The Jews!“

Young Man: And the cyclists!

Hitler: (After a quick, confused look at the young man) Who is destroying our economy and robbing our wives and children? The Jews!

Young Man: And the cyclists!

Jenny Lee Mitchell as Ma'am, Eric Emil Oleson as the Rat, Kirsten Hopkins as the young woman Zuzana, photo Carol Rosegg.

Jenny Lee Mitchell as Ma’am, Eric Emil Oleson as the Rat, Kirsten Hopkins as the young woman Zuzana, photo Carol Rosegg.

Hitler: (With a quizzical, impatient glance at the young man) Who is the parasite on the body of the nation? The Jews!

Young Man: And the cyclists!

Hitler: (Now studiously ignoring him and ratcheting up the rhetoric) Who is undermining our proud spirit with their whining and conniving? The Jews!

Young Man: And the cyclists!

Hitler: (finally exasperated) Why the cyclists?

Young Man: Why the Jews?

The “Nazis” target bike riders. All the bike owners must wear the letter C for cyclist. Ma’am adds, “These orders apply to anyone who has helped cyclists fix their bikes or inflate their tires or sold them biking gear for the last two hundred years. Round up all their relatives as well.”

Later, the Rat (Eric Emil Oleson), encouraging the repression, tells her, “There is no food. There are no jobs. People are angry and looking for a scapegoat. They need someone to blame. You know that cyclists have always made the best scapegoats.”

Edmund Bagnell, Alyson Leigh Rosenfeld as Manicka, Patrick Pizzolorusso as Borivoj Abeles, photo Carol Rosegg.

Edmund Bagnell, Alyson Leigh Rosenfeld as Manicka, Patrick Pizzolorusso as Borivoj Abeles, photo Carol Rosegg.

Patrick Pizzolorusso does a credible job as Svenk and Borivoj Abeles, a grocery store operator who gets a bicycle to impress a young lady. It will be his downfall.

Adding to the absurdity is a life insurance salesman, “the Opportunist” (Lynn Berg), a smiling fellow in a straw hat hawking his cruelly ironic product.

One of the skits is based on a true story, a Danish-government visit to the camp under the auspices of the International Red Cross. The Germans established a “Potemkin Village,” forcing inmates to discuss the sausages they were eating. The naive visitors were so impressed that they never went on to Auschwitz, which had been on their schedule.

Svenk made a small group of inmates laugh. The cabaret was never produced publicly, because the Jewish Council of Elders charged with running the internal affairs of the camp was afraid it would incite the commanders. Not that it did much good: Of more than 141,000 Jews imprisoned there between 1941 and 1945, only 15 percent got out alive. Svenk’s play survives as an emblem of his and the actors’ courage.

This production is being presented in association by the Consulate General of the Czech Republic and the Czech Center.

The Last Cyclist.” Reimagined and reconstructed by Naomi Patz; directed by Edward Einhorn. The West End Theatre, 263 West 86th Street, New York City. 212-352-3101. Opened May 30, 2013; closes June 9, 2013. 6/1/13.

Lucy Komisar is a New York journalist and critic.  Her website is The Komisar Scoop.

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