Anne Frank has been lauded as a martyr, a literary savant and a saint-like figure in the wake of the Holocaust.
But she was a mere girl who kept a remarkable diary during extraordinary times. That we know of her life, her thoughts, her moods, hopes and dreams is only because of her solitary writing during the two years her family — father, mother and older sister Margot — hid in the attic of a spice warehouse in the heart of Amsterdam. Behind a cupboard of shelves, the Franks, joined by other Jews, retreated as the Nazis overtook the Netherlands.
The German-born teenager has become a symbol of untarnished hope in the face of incomprehensible adversity. Her diary, discovered after the war and published in 1947, has been translated into 67 languages and is widely read. The diary has inspired plays, films, books, ballets and other artistic expressions. And she has become a popular icon of tolerance for youngsters across races, religions, nationalities and political stances. Anne Frank’s voice does, indeed, live on.
But like her many young fans, she was also just a girl, struggling with adolescent problems, disagreeing with her mother, bickering with her sister, falling in love with the boy next door, cutting out magazine pictures of Hollywood stars.
It’s this Anne Frank, the giggly, chatty child who turns into a sometimes sarcastic, sometimes thoughtful teen, that Czech performer Mirenka Cechova reveals in her one-woman theatrical tour de force, The Voice of Anne Frank, which was presented at the Atlas Performing Arts Center’s Lang Theater last Saturday. The play made its Washington debut in 2011 and has since been seen and lauded around the world.
In the darkened theater, first we hear the whispers and giggles of a girl; cellist Nancy Jo Snider, perched atop a high platform, responds note by note in the dim light. Anne is conversing with Kitty, the name she gave to her diary when she received it a just a month before her family went into hiding. Confiding in the diary, we see her arched wrist traverse the space, writing her fateful story. Snider answers in music and the interplay between performer and musician becomes a dynamic conversation.
Cechova’s bare back underscores her chatter — ribs and shoulder blades undulating, arms, hands and wrists entwining and punctuating voice and music. The bare skin of Cechova’s back initiates the performer’s characterizations of her family: beloved Pim, her father; Mum, with whom she often butts heads; her older sister Margot, along with the high-strung Mrs. van Daan, glutinous Mr. van Daan and Anne’s first love, the couple’s son, Peter. Cechova transforms herself with a few movements — the cock of her head, the setting of her shoulder, a flutter of fingers a tremoring forearm.
With few props — a valise, a swath of white fabric — and her agile hands and fingers, Cechova invents character and conversation, imitating the shrill voice of Mrs. van Daan and the husky one of Mr. van Daan. With a single sleeved arm, she captures an intimate moment with Peter — a caress and a kiss. And then there’s a little ballet sequence, danced against the back wall. Cechova’s arms undulate. Then, they erupt in a tremor, hummingbird-like, before they fold away like a butterfly expanding and then contracting its wings. It’s a lovely moment drawing on her training in ballet and in mime and physical theater.
Cechova told Washington Jewish Week in 2011 that she, like many, first encountered The Diary of Anne Frank as a 13-year-old and said “remembered a kind of feeling … something resonated for me in the diary.”
She selected snippets of Frank’s writing for her spoken passages in the 50-minute piece. But her silences were equally effective, adding depth of character to the physical approach Cechova emits on stage.
The piece ends in darkness. There’s no need for Cechova to go beyond the Secret Annex to the reality of the concentration camp. We know how the story ends. Snider, with a recorded crash of sound, amplify and accelerate time. In the pitch black, nothing more needs to be said.
Anne’s voice has been silenced. But her story lives on. Her diary has been an inspiration for generations of students and artists. And, while Anne remains a Jewish heroine, her story — with its creed of acceptance and tolerance — has become one of universal import.