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Friendship, Art and Endurance 

Stylized story of survival at Dell'Arte

It's not an ordinary book, with crisp black type on slick snow-white paper. It consists of stitched rags and metal fragments left from the grenades the women in a Nazi slave labor camp were forced to drill. It is a book of simple domestic images with personal meaning, small enough to hide from the guards, created secretly by one Hungarian woman for another in the final and most ferocious months of the Holocaust. It is a scrapbook of survival, handmade in hell.

Dell'Arte's Joan Schirle happened to see an art exhibit in Canada with digital blowups of these images. Both the book and the woman who received it survived. "I experienced a profound emotional shift when I saw these images of things crudely fashioned yet powerful, that seemed both banal and sacred at the same time," Schirle wrote later. They inspired a stage piece, Elisabeth's Book, which previews Wednesday, July 23 and opens Thursday, July 24 for a weekend run at Dell'Arte in Blue Lake.

Created by Schirle, fellow actors Laura Muñoz and Ruxandra Cantir, and director and designer Alain Schons, Elisabeth's Book tells the story of three women with music, dance, poetry, projections and live video.

There are three scenes in this one-act play, revised from its "in-progress" April version. The first scene depicts the women's ordinary middle-class life in Hungary, emphasizing their love of books and music. The second is set in the Nazi camps and shows the making of the book. The third scene takes place in a little-known period between the European war's end in 1945 and the massive Marshall Plan aid from the U.S. in 1948, when in Winston Churchill's words, Europe was "a rubble heap, a charnel house, a breeding ground of pestilence and hate." Like many others liberated from the Nazi camps, these stateless and penniless women wandered, sometimes finding themselves in camps again, not as prisoners but as refugees.

For Schirle, it is a story of survival that applies beyond historical circumstances to ever-present possibilities of today.

"These women wouldn't have made it without each other, without friendships," Schirle said. "Creative acts like Elisabeth's book or the recipe books they made and the actors and singers in the camps were also vital to their survival. We aren't trying to encompass the Holocaust, nothing can. The danger is always the sentimentalization of the unspeakable. But these are ordinary women and their stories deserve to be told and remembered. It's also important to realize that anyone's life can be changed in the world we're living in. There are millions of displaced people in the world right now."

Even apart from its physical theatre style, the play is not a documentary (Schirle noted that the character she plays would have been considered too old to work and therefore killed). But it is based on real characters and events, especially on Elisabeth Raab and her memoir, And Peace Never Came. Today Raab lives in Toronto, and her son will attend a performance in Blue Lake. Though (like other Holocaust victims) Raab couldn't find a way to write about these events until the 1990s, she kept the book made for her at the Lippstadt camp 70 years ago.

Among the projections during the show are images from that book that Schirle first saw in Canada, by artist Thelma Rosner, Elisabeth's grand-niece. Original music was composed by Tim Gray, Gina Leishman and Schirle. Lighting is by Michael Foster, costumes by Lydia Foreman and sound design by Tim Gray. Elisabeth's Book is performed in the Carlo Theatre at Dell'Arte, July 23-27 at 8 p.m. 668-5663,

Coming Up:

Near the other end of the theatrical spectrum is The Wedding Singer, opening this weekend at Ferndale Repertory Theatre. Take a 95-minute Adam Sandler romantic comedy movie set in 1985 and inject it with an additional hour and a half of musical reminders of the 1980s' more superficial features, add frenetic energy and period costumes and you've got this 2006 Broadway entertainment, which has since toured the world. It's written by Tim Herlihy and Chad Beguelin (also the lyricist) with music by Matthew Sklar.

Directed at Ferndale Rep by Brandi Lacy, with musical direction by Molly Severdia and choreography by Danielle Cichon, it features Erik Standifird, Sasha Shay, Tyler Rich, Megan Hensley and Cichon heading a large cast. The Wedding Singer opens Friday, July 25, playing Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Aug. 17. There's a special Actors Benefit performance on Thursday, Aug. 7 at 8 p.m., preceded by live music from The Attics at 7 p.m. 786-5483,

Also this weekend: The Poor of New York, an 1857 melodrama about families victimized by financial corruption, opens at North Coast Repertory Theatre with a benefit for cast and crew on Thursday, July 24 at 8 p.m. As in classic melodrama, good triumphs over evil. Performances continue through Aug. 16. Directed by Alex Service, it features David Simms, Randall Larson, Shirley Santino, Toodie SueAnn Boll, Scott Osborn, Jim Buschmann and David Moore. 442-6278,

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