The Escape Act: A Holocaust Memoir
Petit Mort Productions and Dreamcoat Experience
This is the story of twentieth-century German circus artiste Irene Danner-Storm, partly narrated by writer and performer Stav Meishar (who also shares some of her own family history) and partly told by her in character as Irene.
Born in 1923, Irene was German but her mother was Jewish, a member of the internationally known Lorch circus family, famous for their Icarian Games act (also called a Risley Act, in which the performer lies on their back with their legs in the air on which they balance objects other performers). She grew up in Eschollbruecken where the Lorch Circus had their winter quarters and from her earliest years she began to learn circus skills.
With the rise of Hitler’s National Socialists (Nazis) and anti-Jewish feeling, the Lorch circus hit problems and in 1930 went bankrupt but Irene found a job with Circus Busch where she trained as part of Enrico Caroli’s Italian equestrian act until the introduction of laws forbidding the employment of Jews meant she had to leave them.
She then went to Adolf Althoff and begged for a job with his circus and he agreed though she had no work papers and in 1941 was appearing with them as part of a clown band along with Moroccan acrobat Mohammed Saharoui (Momo) and Peter Bento, with whom she fell in love.
Althoff and his circus later took in Irene’s mother and sister (her grandmother had already been taken away by the Gestapo) and her father who had been in the army but was sent on leave with orders to divorce his Jewish wife.
This is all presented in a mixture of narration and enactment that involves puppets in the form of face masks and costumes that can be worn on one arm, projected photos of family, circus and animated Nazis, recorded voices and a model of the family home (set inside a suitcase) with cut-out figures of her relations which is touchingly used for a Yom Kippur ceremony.
Stav Meishar also incorporates juggling and trapeze work, the latter particularly effective as she describes the horror of the birth of her first child by Caesarean section without anaesthetic: she is told, “that is needed for our soldiers, not for Jewish bastards.” Ironically, in reality (though not mentioned here), that resulted in her being unable to continue as an acrobat.
This combination of elements is carefully constructed to provide imaginative storytelling but Shoshana Bass’s direction slows things down by having the performer hide the putting on of puppet characters by half disappearing into a tiny circus tent. There is no need for concealment—the audience is already accepting the multiple methods in which characters are presented and it would make things much smoother for Meishar to be out in the open and perhaps allow her to pay more attention to the actual characterisations, for they all sound much the same. Or is that intentional to make this feel more like someone telling their story rather than acting it? However, the contrast between the way she presents these voices and the much more natural delivery when speaking in her own persona is noticeable.
This is a carefully researched presentation that is at times very moving. It doesn’t present the whole story and there are some simplifications to make its telling easier and perhaps to make it more suitable as a way of introducing younger audiences to Holocaust history.
I found the fussy jiggling of little cut-out figures unnecessarily complicated and irritating. Less movement and more vocal characterisation would better serve the situation. The production is at its best when it integrates Irene’s circus skills and it would be great to have more of that.
This is a remarkable story and a production that is still in development. Its brief London appearance (Stav Meishar’s UK debut) is over but you can still catch it at other dates.
The Escape Act can also be seen at Circomedia, Bristol on September 26; CircusMASH, Birmingham, on October 27; and the Lowry, Salford, on October 29.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton