A SUPURB ENSEMBLE Members of the In the Underworld cast, pre-head-shaving/hair-cutting.
Even after French Resistance leader Germaine Tillion was arrested by the Nazis, she still found ways to defy. While imprisoned in the Ravensbrück concentration camp, from 1943-45, the former ethnologist not only risked her life taking secret notes about the horrors around her, but also managed to write an entire operetta of dissent, Le Verfügbar aux Enfers. It wasn’t performed until 2007 in the original French, and only now receives its world-premiere English performance, by the University of Southern Maine Department of Theatre. Horrific but rich in gallows humor, Tillion’s script is called In the Underworld in a new translation by Annie and Karl Bortnick, commissioned by USM and on stage now at Russell Hall under the impressive direction of Meghan Brodie.
In the Underworld expresses torments both institutional and disarmingly personal, in a sequence of lyrics set to well-known music of Tillion’s day — often in facetiously major keys. The show begins as five new inmates, heads freshly shaven (Mary Kate Ganza, Clare McKelway, Caroline O’Connor, Hannah Perry, and Elinor Strandskov), join six others already at Ravensbrück (Callie J. Cox, Helena Crothers-Villers, Virginia Hudak, Madelyn James, Sable Strout, and Rhiannon Vonder Haar). On Shannon Zura's elegant, imposing rendering of the camp — tall wood walls, rough-hewn bunks, poles strung with barbed wire — the superb ensemble swerves adroitly between searing irony and earnest rage or lament about sick passes, prison food, and the sad slackening of the near-starving women’s breasts.
Between the songs, an inmate dressed in a hat and tails, called The Naturalist (Madelyn James, with crisp, deadpanned delivery), holds forth on the characteristics of “the Verfügbar,” which the Bortnicks translate as “the Forlorn,” a new human “species” born of the camps often “sensitive to sudden noises,” or stricken with “logorrhea” as bodies are wheeled by. Tillion’s formulations are disarming. The Naturalist compares the Verfügbar to other organisms, for example, asexual lichens: they are “sometimes female — but mostly, nothing at all.” Immediately after this observation, the group sings “Our Sex Appeal” about the sorry state of their sexuality, at once arch and sorrowful. Two types of Verfügbar exist: a “good for nothing” and a “saboteur.” Tillion is most interested in the latter.
The women’s emotional resistance builds in a pattern of alternating dark-comic and serious in its songs and commentary. These contrasts keep the pace energetic, with the exception of a few longer solemn songs, and with some elusiveness in the arc of the Naturalist (after one particularly harrowing song, she disappears back into the ensemble for the duration). Punctuated by beautiful shifts in lighting and sounds of whistles, trains, and chimes, pacing is especially bracing when we’re shocked out of its pattern, as when a comic song (about rutabagas) is cut short by a gunshot.
And this ensemble of 11 women, dressed in stripes and pale and purpled with bruises, is simply remarkable as they talk of terrifying minutiae, camp slang, and small acts of rebellion, as they detail and display torture scars to upbeat oom-pah-pah. Their faces express an affecting range of emotions — some are haunted, some hardened, some contorted with rage — and effectively portray both an aggregate of individuals and a strikingly bonded, cohesive group. Accompanied by Jonathan Marro’s excellent nine-piece orchestra, their voices are texturally varied and often very fine, with moments of breathtaking harmony. They perform Maria Tzianabos’s simple choreography of circling and riffs on tango and the can-can with an appealing artlessness, and summon great gravity when, in the next moment, they glare stock still in the footlights.