Reviews of The Westerork Serenade

Natale conveys with economy and depth a gripping, true life story and the people caught up in it…he is actor enough to carry it alone.

Misha Berson, Seattle Times

Natale transforms the story of Westerbork into a universal meditation on art sacrifice and survival…His deep personal investment in the material, along with obvious talent, gives Westerbork an undeniable moral force.

Richard Morin, Seattle Weekly

Natale is an extremely versatile performer…With its jaunty song and dance numbers, gleaned from the Westerbork repertoire, Natale’s show is particularly unnerving.

Joe Adcock, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

The Westerbork Serenade [is] not only…a Holocaust story about Jews and Nazis, but a cautionary tale on the destructiveness of prejudice and racism.

Peter A. Klein, JT News


Life Is a Cabaret

A play’s characters perform—literally—as if their lives depended on it.

By Richard Morin – January 16, 2008

Photo by Lam Khong

Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1940, and two years later the Nazis took control of Lager Westerbork, a camp set up by the Dutch government to house refugees from Hitler’s regime. Westerbork was converted to a transit camp to hold Jews, many of them en route to death camps in Germany and Poland. The camp’s commandant, Albert Gemmeker, was an admirer of the arts and, more important, a fan of Jewish popular culture, and he went so far as to requisition funds to help the camp’s residents, a number of them cabaret and cinema stars who had fled Germany to perform in Holland, stage a weekly cabaret revue. Here’s the kicker: Anyone taking part in the revue was allowed to stay in Westerbork, thereby avoiding the weekly transport trains to Auschwitz.

This is the historical background of The Westerbork Serenade, a one-man play written and performed by David Natale and directed by Gin Hammond for Odd Duck Studio. Natale, who first began working with this rich, tragic material in 1996 for his master’s thesis at the Old Globe Theatre, transforms the story of Westerbork into a universal meditation on art, sacrifice, and survival, without losing sight of the documentary details of this 20th-century atrocity. His play is at once sweeping and wrenchingly intimate, capturing the living texture of normal lives caught up in the hellish machinery of history. On a stark set defined by bare, flat-black walls, a glaring klieg light and three pallets pushed together to make the cabaret stage, Natale enacts Westerbork as a dark journey, following the trajectory of a handful of vivid characters from their arrival at the camp to their departure or death. Scenes of daily life in the camp are punctuated regularly by cabaret acts, such as Natale performing his adaptation of the 1944 Johnny and Jones song “Die Westerbork Serenade.” These numbers—sardonic, often hilarious commentaries on the camp itself—give the play a strong thematic resonance, and the underlying immediacy of the gallows humor is emotionally crushing. As one of the actors says to Max, the director of the camp’s revue: “This is the performance of our lives.”

Natale moves smoothly and convincingly among a number of memorable characters, each of whom embodies a particular aspect of the human instinct for survival. Among his most interesting creations is a mother with a babe in arms, a portrait of suffering filled with an utterly unsentimental fury that speaks truth to the sometimes deluded thinking of the rest of the inmates; at several points, the mother, looking down at her infant, says bitterly that the child “is just an ordinary Jew” compared to the cabaret stars avoiding deportation. Natale’s Max personifies the nagging guilt of a man who must make life-and-death choices among his own people. But perhaps the most fascinating character is Gemmeker, the Nazi commandant who believes that both Germans and Jews represent superior races. Hearing this complicated man say, “I believe children are the future,” is a chilling reminder that the evil Third Reich comprised ordinary people, with their banal hopes, self-contradictions, and self-deelusions. In researching and performing this play, Natale has made contact with Westerbork survivors, and his deep personal investment in the material, along with his obvious talent, gives Westerbork an undeniable emotional and moral force. The play is funny, sad, infuriating, shocking, and inspiring all at once. It moves with the relentless lockstep of tragedy, its terrors relieved only by the momentary flair here and there of the not-indomitable human spirit. Natale has expressed a desire to develop Westerbork into a fully cast stage play with an orchestra. It’s no slight on this excellent one-act version to say he should.

Performing for their lives Peter A. Klein • Special to JTNews
Posted: January 11, 2008

“They performed for their lives,” says the flyer for Seattle actor/writer David Natale’s play, The Westerbork Serenade. And that’s precisely what happened. During World War II, a group of Jewish cabaret performers at the Westerbork transit camp in Holland delayed their ultimate fate by putting on shows for their fellow David Natale, creator of and actor in the one-man production The Westerbork Serenade. (Photo: Courtesy David Natale ) inmates and captors. The Westerbork Serenade is an 80-minute solo performance in which Natale plays 15 characters. He based his script on accounts from Westerbork inmates. Songs from the Westerbork cabaret shows are woven into the text, with recorded accompaniment by the Seattle Wednesday Klezmer Kapelye. Period recordings of the original artists can be heard during the pre-show interval. On one level, Westerbork was simply one of many way stations to the Final Solution. It began as a Dutch refugee camp for German Jews fleeing Hitler. Under Nazi occupation, it became the principal place where Dutch Jews were gathered and held until they could be transported to the death camps. Every Tuesday morning at 8:00, the transport train rolled east with its quota of 1,000 or more Jews. But unlike most Nazi camps, Westerbork preserved the appearance of normal life. The inmates lived in barracks, but kept their own clothes and hair. The camp had cafés, schools, even a well-staffed hospital. And from 1943-44, Westerbork probably had the best cabaret in Nazi-occupied Europe. Some of the most famous Jewish artists from the German and Dutch entertainment worlds ended up there, including film star Camilla Spira, composer Willy Rosen, and the Dutch musical duo Johnny and Jones. Their director was Max Ehrlich, the colorful German-Jewish theatrical luminary. Presiding over the camp was the paradoxical, cabaret-loving Commandant Konrad Gemmeker — an efficient SS officer who sent over 80,000 people to their deaths. Yet he arguably treated his prisoners more humanely than at any other Nazi camp, giving Ehrlich a scenery and costume budget out of SS funds, and protecting the key artists from deportation until his superiors reorganized the camp and shut down the entertainments. Beyond the obvious life-and-death drama of the Westerbork story, Natale’s play examines the complex symbiotic relationship between the Commandant and Ehrlich. It touches on the conflict between German and Dutch Jews. And it poses a question that many inmates asked themselves: Which was more important — that the cabaret provided welcome comfort to the prisoners, or that it aided the Nazis by keeping the camp pacified? The Cleveland-born Natale first became aware of the possibilities of solo performance while an undergraduate at the Yale School of Drama. There, he saw the work of the Italian playwright and director Dario Fo. Natale recalls Fo’s performance of the Christian parable of the raising of Lazarus from the dead: “He played the entire population of Jerusalem as characters from the Commedia. It was amazing.” The Westerbork Serenade originated as a 20-minute solo performance Natale created over a decade ago, while completing his Master’s degree at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater. After the Old Globe, Natale lived in Seattle, where he performed at the Annex Theater. Then he spent eight years in New York, where developed his Westerbork piece further for a fringe theater festival. In New York, Natale interviewed three Westerbork survivors: Louis de Wijza (who sang fragments of the cabaret songs), Hannelore Cahn and Hans Margules. He read the writings of Etty Hillesum and Philip Mechanicus, who left detailed records of camp life. He kept discovering new information. “Each time I thought I was finished with it,” recalls Natale, “I felt obliged to keep going.” In 2004, Natale returned to Seattle, where his sister now lives. His most recent major performance was as John Lennon in the Seattle Public Theatre’s production of Just Like Starting Over, and his voice has been heard on Imagination Theater on KIXI-AM 880. Gin Hammond is Natale’s director. She received a Helen Hayes Award for her solo performance in the national tour of The Syringa Tree, in which she played 24 characters. Switching between multiple roles is challenging, says Natale, “but thanks to Gin, it’s doable.” He used to rely more on props to help distinguish between characters, but now uses mostly acting technique — voices, body attitudes, and angles of focus. Different characters focus on a different section of the audience, creating an effect like camera angles in a film. Says Hammond, “When you see all of these characters coming through one person, including rather nasty characters, and you see all these aspects of humanity being embodied right there, it is a very useful reminder of what we’re all capable of, for better or for worse.” Both actor and director bring a multi-ethnic perspective to the work. Natale was raised Jewish, but has a Jewish-Italian mother and an Italian father. Hammond is half African-American. Her aunt witnessed the aftermath of lynchings in pre-war Texas, then saw Auschwitz in 1948. Hammond is working on a theater piece about her aunt’s encounter with Auschwitz and how it changed her, and she is interested in eventually weaving her piece and Natale’s into a single work, while Natale would like to eventually take his performance to schools. Both artists see The Westerbork Serenade not only as a Holocaust story about Jews and Nazis, but as a universal cautionary tale on the destructiveness of prejudice and racism. The performance was produced with support from Eclectic Theatre Company and Theatre Artists’ Alliance, and grants from Artist Trust and King County 4Culture.

 2010 Article in TIME OUT AMSTERDAM