Cellist Eman Chalshotori in “Four Children” (Brian Paulette)
Visitors to the Auschwitz exhibit at Union Station should make time for “Four Children,” an elegant, intricately woven script that highlights the dazzling cruelty of war even as its staging keeps us at an emotional remove.
The world premiere play, adapted by M. Edelman and produced by the Kansas City Actors Theatre, collages elements from the diaries of Vahram Dadrian, a 15-year-old Armenian boy marched south to Aleppo during the Armenian genocide; Nadja Halibegovich, a 12-year-old Bosnian girl living through the siege of Sarajevo; Chanrithy Him, a 13-year-old Cambodian girl suffering under the regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge; and Dawid Sierakowiak, a 15-year-old Jewish boy trapped in the Łódź ghetto during the Holocaust.
The Kansas City Actors Theatre’s production is structured like a staged reading: actors remain seated in front of music stands for most of the show, each framed in their own stark white island of light (lights designed by Zoe Spangler). Director John Rensenhouse seems to intentionally build distance between character and performer: actors introduce themselves to the audience at the top of the show, and all four players are credited in the program as “cast” rather than slotted into specific roles.
That distance helps smooth over casting choices that would otherwise strain credulity: Victor Raider-Wexler and Kathleen Warfel are two of the city’s most talented actors, but no one would mistake them for teenagers. It also risks trading realism for reverence. The power of theater—to me, at least—lies in its ability to collapse gulfs of understanding between character and actor, character and audience. The meta-theatrical elements here imply that some distances are too great for us to cross.
Edelman’s script, in contrast, finds a common thread among children living through four vastly different contexts and challenges. Each character’s narrative is splintered and woven with the others to create a conversational flow. At times, the characters even play bit parts in each others’ lives. That structure highlights the common rot (and route) of genocide even as it emphasizes the unique lives of each diarist.
Each child’s story starts with moments of beauty and joy, summer camps and pâté sandwiches. Projections (designed by Jerry Mañan) function as chapter titles, splashing broad themes (such as “a conventional middle class family”) against the back wall. An on-stage cellist (on opening night, Eman Chalshotori) underscores the script’s movement, alternating between upbeat classical melodies and eerie, anxious effects on the cello neck.
Marisa B. Tejeda delivers a stand-out performance as Nadja, capturing the creeping terror of living “from siren to siren” during the four-yier siege of Sarajevo. Tejeda’s performance is urgent and incisive; their gaze lingers just slightly on the audience after each passage, as if daring us to look away. Vi Tran is also affecting as Vahram, showing cracks in the teenager’s steely maturity.
Warfel seemed to struggle early in Thursday night’s performance, applying a naivety to Chanrithy Him’s words that clashed with the memoir’s lush, sophisticated language. But Warfel found her footing as the play progressed: her reading of a grim scene of starvation was one of the play’s most affecting moments.
I don’t have many gushing descriptors left to toss at Raider-Wexler, a peerless performer who could make a soap opera out of an instruction manual. But a brimmed hat kept his face in shadow through much of the play—a problem when facial expressions are one of the production’s few dynamic elements.
The brisk pacing of “Four Children” feels right for its structure: together, Rensenhouse and Edelman emphasize the dizzying speed at which lives, nations, and our higher ideals can fall apart. If the script falters, it does so only in the epilogue, which provides a glancing review of other genocides perpetrated throughout history. After 65 minutes of moving personal particulars, I didn’t need a generalized summation of the evils of genocide—or a didactic quote about its origins.
Still, I can’t think of a better companion piece to Union Station’s Auschwitz exhibition (and buying tickets to both will net you a deep discount). The Auschwitz exhibition renders the evils of the Holocaust in brutal, concrete detail. “Four Children” reminds us that brutality is a legacy we have yet to outrun.
“Four Children,” a production of the Kansas City Actors Theatre, runs at City Stage at Union Station through October 24. For more information, call 816-361-5228 or visit kcactors.org