Review: Protective Custody: PRISONER 34042
By Perry Tannenbaum
If you missed the 2018 staged reading of Protective Custody: PRISONER 34042, Charles LaBorde’s adaptation of Holocaust survivor Susan Cernyak-Spatz’s memoir – or Three Bone Theatre’s world premiere production in 2019 – fate has been kind to you in 2021 with another reprise. Cernyak-Spatz, freed from the Birkenau and Auschwitz concentration camps at the age of 22 in 1945, lived long enough to see her story dramatized onstage. Already ailing, she lived only two weeks after attending the performance at Spirit Square on the opening weekend of the run.
Half whimsically and half seriously, she told the stage director Dennis Delamar to take the show on the road before she died at age 97. Founder of the UNC-Charlotte’s Holocaust Studies program and a professor of German language and literature, Dr. Cernyak-Spatz had seen plenty in her long life, but she couldn’t foresee the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on theatre and the arts around the globe, particularly how streaming would become de rigueur. Instead of on the road, Protective Custody is now online, free for the asking on your computer monitor or on your television screen.
Of course, Cernyak-Spatz’s deathbed wishes weren’t about vanity, for the UNCC professor had lectured widely on the Holocaust and her personal survival, holding a passionate belief that we forget this horrific history at our own peril. What you may find disarming about Susan’s staged account, once again performed by Leslie Giles with the aid of Paula Baldwin as her dresser-mother-dancing beau-Nazi guard-fellow prisoner-rapist-Nazi accordionist-American rescuer, is how dispassionate her tone often is, punctuated by eruptions of bitter irony, cynicism, and rage. She tells us she lost her modesty long ago in the concentration camps, how animalistic she needed to become to survive them, implicitly conceding that the Nazis were at least partially victorious in dehumanizing her.
They surely hardened her, maybe the greatest irony of all. “I was strangely detached from the incredibility of what I heard,” she tells us after a Nazi guard has welcomed her to Birkenau by explaining – and describing – the extermination that is happening to newcomers who aren’t as lucky as she. Those younger than 16 and older than 35 rode immediately to “the gas.” We have all heard about the fiendish efficiency of the Nazis’ extermination systems and apparatus, but Susan repeatedly calls our attention to how the Nazis systematically humiliated and dehumanized their prisoners, squeezing as much work out of them as possible with the smallest expenditure. Cruelty is constant, even as the Third Reich faces defeat. Ordering the death march out of the camps as the avenging Russian Red Army approaches, the guard barks, “A bullet in the head for those who cannot walk!”
Detachment and inhumanity are inevitable results of the plum jobs Susan is able to land at Auschwitz. The cushiest requires nothing more of her than drawing a line through the names of fellow prisoners, thousands of them, who have passed through “the gas” and the crematoriums. Another requires her to sort through the clothes and possessions of those who haven’t been as lucky as she has been – she can even scavenge some choice articles of clothing. No doubt this aspect of the story fascinated LaBorde as he adapted Cernyak-Spatz’s sprawling memoir for the stage. Thinking of changes in wardrobe as the organizing principle of Susan’s narrative is his idea, not hers. Magda Guichard’s wide range of costume designs help LaBorde depict Susan’s precipitous fall from her upper middle-class status in Vienna to her total degradation at the Birkenau death camp. Delamar spares Giles from the fullest indignities that the script allows, letting his star wear a flesh-colored leotard when Susan is ordered to strip for a delousing shower and allowing her to retain her own disheveled hair when she is shaven bald. A sleekly coiffed wig is removed to suggest the transition.
PRISONER 34042 remains a potent brew in spite of these discreet alterations, with language, lurid descriptions, and a vaguely simulated rape scene that might give today’s helicopter parents some pause. Perhaps the sponsorship of this filming by Culture Blocks, which partners with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library system, was the inspiration for addressing such qualms with a more benign Student Edition of the film. (Unabridged, as far as I could determine.) Filmed at McGlohon Theatre by SimplisticPhobia Productions, the three-person camera crew helmed by Will Jenkins helps to dramatize the action with angled close-ups, from stage right or stage left, that nearly fill our screens with the two players. These give way to centered long shots that remind us that we’re in a theatre, especially when Giles perches over the lip of the McGlohon stage and, after the Nazi accordionist plays the verse, sings the first eight bars of “Stardust.”
Somehow all of the spot-on lighting changes by production designer Ryan Maloney stand out in better relief now than they did at Duke Energy Theatre 17 months ago, and photographs of Susan and her parents are far better showcased when shown in split-screen. Maloney also shines in sound design, whether bringing us that charming accordion, the sound of the cattle cars rumbling to the deathcamps with their human cargo, or the air-raid sirens when liberation is near. Decking his actors out in body mics that offer very crisp reproduction on the video, Maloney also provided pragmatic reasons for Giles to keep her hair and don a leotard.
Calmly helping Giles through all her costume changes and repeatedly partnering with her at key moments, Baldwin’s surrogate work seemed far more awesome as I re-watched her alternately stony and empathetic portrayals. Fearsome and melting like an iceberg, how much scurrying was Baldwin doing behind the scene, transforming from Mom to debonair boyfriend or from prisoner to Nazi oppressor, and how much of stage manager Callie Richards’ work was devoted to making Baldwin’s metamorphoses look effortless? She will likely be undervalued by many who see her because she has so few lines, but Delamar and LaBorde have given Baldwin a new epilogue to deliver after Giles is gone, and her perfection continues. A final elegant touch happened when she hung up one last article of clothing, surely the only costume Guichard didn’t design, for we see it on film immediately afterwards – with the real Dr. Cernyak-Spatz wearing it.
Giles’ performance would be cleaner and bobble-free if cuts had been decreed during the filming rather than entirely in post-production. Yet after all the immaculate multi-take perfection that I’ve seen for months in screening films and TV series at home, it was wonderful to experience the arc and energy and stamina of a true live performance, warts and nerves – with lapses in Austrian accent – and all. Giles’true professionalism emerges in adversity, and like the performance at Spirit Square that I attended in 2019, accent and performance grew stronger as her story progressed, as we witnessed Susan’s perils and desperate hopes gripping her more and more.
The little coda that LaBorde added to Cernyak-Spatz’s 2005 memoir, taking aim at emboldened White Supremacists and Anti-Semites as well as hate-spewing demagogues in the halls of Congress and the White House, sounded more potent and relevant on Easter Sunday than they did in late 2019 when Donald Trump was still our President. Maybe Delamar and Giles were simply more insistent on emphasizing LaBorde’s message. Or maybe the impact was greater for me now because, as these Holocaust echoes recede into the past, it’s more important than ever to remember them, remember how they recently grew more virulent and threatened our republic – and to call them out where they are still lurking.