Telling the Story of Anne Frank by Videoconference

May 1, 2020 | Terry Teachout
About the author: Terry Teachout is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and the critic-at-large of Commentary.

With theaters and concert halls closed due to the coronavirus, performing artists have been seeking out alternative ways to bring their work to the public. Some have turned to videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom, which allows the viewer to watch different people in different places put on a performance more or less in unison. But only recently did the theater critic Terry Teachout find a production “specially tailored to the unique properties of the software.”

Park Square Theatre [is] a Minnesota troupe new to me whose plans to perform [the classic play] The Diary of Anne Frank for more than 12,000 students in St. Paul were sabotaged by the pandemic. Instead of abandoning the production, the members of the cast, who were already using Zoom to work on their lines, decided to move the entire show to the web.

Billed as “a special online production created by artists in isolation,” it is far more than a mere stopgap: It is the most stirring staging of Anne Frank I have ever seen, a version that employs the unique properties of Zoom in a way that heightens the intrinsic drama of the play itself, subtly connecting the terrible truth of the Frank family’s desperate attempt to hide from the Nazis to the infinitely less consequential but still painful solitude in which so many of us find ourselves forced to live.

This production . . . is acted by a very, very strong ten-person ensemble led by Sulia Rose Altenberg (Anne) and Michael Paul Levin (as her father, Otto), each member of which appears in costume in a separate Zoom box, seated in front of neutral-colored backdrops of varying shades. They speak directly to the unseen “audience,” using simple, sparing gestures but making no attempt to suggest physical interaction until the play’s climax, when we hear the sickening sound of Nazi policemen banging on the door to their hiding place.

I don’t want to give away what happens next, save to say that Ms. Fenster and her ingenious colleagues have come up with what might well be the very first Zoom-based coup de théâtre, a scene of stunning intensity whose mere memory reduces me to tears as I write these words.

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