Hilary Chaplain in “The Last Rat of Theresienstadt.” Submitted photo

Johnson Hall presents Hilary Chaplain’s “The Last Rat of Theresienstadt” at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 20, at Cumston Hall in Monmouth. “The Last Rat of Theresienstadt” is one woman’s struggle to survive during the Holocaust. The play incorporates the song lyrics, visual art, and poetry that were produced by the many prominent artists imprisoned in the “Ghetto Town” of Terezín, a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, also known by the German name Theresienstadt. 

The show opens with an audacious performance by the “acclaimed,” Sofia Brünn, a fictional singer/comedienne, in a 1930s Weimar Cabaret. We follow her as she is deported from Berlin to Theresienstadt where she is forced to work in the camp kitchen. Imprisoned, Sofia has lost everything and with it, her will to live.  There, she meets a scrappy rat named Pavel. The other rats have left the town for lack of food, but Pavel stays behind, drawn to the performances in the camp. He desperately needs her to sing again for his own will to live. She is repulsed by him and he, in turn, blurts out insults he has overheard describing Jews. Over time they befriend each other and bond over their love of the cabaret. 

Using comedy and drama, we tell the story of Sofia and Pavel, follow the journey of a pair of Vaudevillian emcees in the Attic Cabaret, and illustrate how the Nazis used this ghetto town as a model camp to prove to the world that they were “taking care” of the Jews and giving them a “home.”

The play explores how humor and art can heal and create resilience in the face of adversity. Pavel is, in fact, a figment of Sofia’s imagination, the part of her buried deep inside that wants to fight back. Ironically, her imagination has created an alter ego in the very form of the hated rodent species that the Nazis compared to Jews. While the subject matter is the Holocaust, whose victims we honor through remembrance of that time, our themes are very relevant today, with anti-Semitism on the rise and bigotry and racism creating chasms between people struggling to live as neighbors in countries all over the world.

This is a story of prejudice and oppression juxtaposed against survival, joy, and the will to feed both body and soul. It’s a story of humor, art, and a rat who is forever changed.

Since 2005, Chaplain has been touring internationally with her award-winning solo show “A Life in Her Day,” directed by Avner Eisenberg, and in variety shows worldwide with her short comic numbers. In 2018, she created a show in collaboration with other artists called “The Last Rat of Theresienstadt” which won the top four awards when it premiered at the Lalka Tez Cztowiek Puppet Festival in Warsaw, Poland. Drawing inspiration from clown theatre, movement, objects, and puppetry, Chaplain has been creating solo and ensemble work for the past 40 years. She was an original cast member in Bill Irwin’s “Largely/New York” and appeared on Broadway in the Public Theatre production of “The Tempest” directed by George C. Wolfe. She played a featured role in Forrest Gump appeared on “Law and Order: Criminal Intent.” She entertained children in NYC hospitals as “Nurse Nice” of the renowned Big Apple Circus Hospital Clown Program (since 1987) and is a founding member of the New York Goofs, a clown ensemble created in 1996. She has performed and taught worldwide in over 20 countries and 5 continents. She is currently in development with a new show called “Bite Me!” with CB Goodman and Aitor Basauri.

This show is part of the Johnson Hall “On the Road Series” and takes place off-site from Johnson Hall while our theater undergoes a full renovation.

Cumston Hall is located at 796 Main St., Monmouth. This location is handicap accessible. For more information, contact the Johnson Hall box office at 207-582-7144, Tuesday-Friday from 12-3 p.m., and the day of the show starting at 5 p.m.

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