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updated: 9/16/2013 8:02 AM

Art in Trying Times: 'Signs of Life' a musical Holocaust story

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  • "Signs of Life," which opens Wednesday at Biograph Theater's Zacek McVay Theater, tells the story of a fictional Czech artist named Lorelei as a prisoner in the Terezin concentration camp during World War II.

      "Signs of Life," which opens Wednesday at Biograph Theater's Zacek McVay Theater, tells the story of a fictional Czech artist named Lorelei as a prisoner in the Terezin concentration camp during World War II.

 
By Scott Morgan
smorgan@dailyherald.com

Virgina Criste knows that the creation of a musical about the World War II concentration camp Terezin in the former Czechoslovakia is bound to ruffle some feathers.

But as a producer and lead commissioner of "Signs of Life," a 2010 musical making its Chicago premiere this week at the Biograph Theater's Zacek McVay Theater, Criste believes that the popular theatrical form can take on weighty and serious subjects that are also deeply personal.

Criste's paternal grandparents were murdered after their internment at Terezin, also known as Theresienstadt, a showplace artist camp built by the Nazis as a ruse to placate the visiting Red Cross about their treatment of Jews and other Nazi-branded undesirables.

"There was a lack of understanding that this very medium was at the heart of this very ghetto," Criste said. "I'm using the very artistic form that these people were passionate about."

Indeed, Hans Krasa's children's musical "Brundibar" and Viktor Ullmann's one-act opera "The Emperor of Atlantis" ("Der Kaiser von Atlantis") are two works that were created in Terezin and still are performed today. The Ullmann piece is part of Chicago Opera Theater's 2014 season.

But those works aren't specifically about the people who lived and created art under trying circumstances at Terezin, and Criste believed a musical inspired by their lives would help their memory to live on.

Criste passed along all of her Terezin research materials playwright Peter Ullian, composer Joel Derjner and lyricist Len Schiff for "Signs of Life," which was developed in Issaquah, Wash., and later performed off-Broadway in New York in 2010.

"Signs of Life" focuses on a fictional Czech visual artist named Lorelei, and follows her story as a prisoner and eventual survivor of Terezin. While the run of "Signs of Life" in New York wasn't allowed to extend, representatives from the Skokie-based Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center saw "Signs of Life" in New York, and urged Criste to consider a Chicago production.

Criste has roots in the area (she's a graduate of New Trier High School in Northfield), and thought the show would resonate with the high number of Holocaust survivors and their descendants in the Chicago area.

Like the New York production of "Signs of Life," Criste is emphasizing the real artwork and theater programs that were hidden or smuggled out of Terezin, which are displayed after the show.

"The show's title, 'Signs of Life,' is to reference the actual art that we still have," Criste said. "The goal is not to play games with the reality of what happened in any way whatsoever, but to look at how you take that kind of a situation and carry it forward in some kind of positive way."

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