A brilliant idea and good script don’t get the production they deserve in The Secret Annex, the final show of the Tom Hendry Warehouse season. Stiff blocking, stiffer accents, and a distant lead frustrate a fertile play from bringing a world of ideas and an adored diarist to full-blooded, full-bodied life.
Winnipeg playwright Alix Sobler imagines one possible version of an unmurdered Anne Frank: alive, well (but not well off), and living in Brooklyn. The Nazis never found her family and four others in their secret Amsterdam annex; she never died in Bergen-Belsen; her teen prose never rose to renown. (Getting published is harder when you’re not a martyr).
This all promises a sparkling weave of universal questions illuminated by Anne’s troubled relationships with her sister Margot, a pining Peter van Pels, her American boss/beau and her own survival. And it sets up a shockingly shocking takedown of the real Anne Frank’s glorification. Even for someone who didn’t grow up reading The Diary of a Young Girl, this sexually confident, manipulative, often self-absorbed Anne is a pleasing taboo breaker.
Darkened throughout by knowing most of these characters were murdered, Anne’s crusade to get her writings off her back and out to the world unexpectedly takes the gut-wrenching reflections of her diary a step further.
That’s the play you can hear in the text, waiting in the wings.
Preventing lift off are some uninspiringly blocked, talking-head scenes, where functional movement doesn’t boost the characters’ choices. Then there’s the accent – a stoic Dutch dip. It’s technically fairly well done, but it’s keeping the actors from a broader vocal range and all the expressive possibilities that would allow.
It works in tandem with Tal Gottfried’s hyper intelligent, oddly dispassionate take on Anne to produce a lead character who’s blasé about the others onstage and even her own goals. So many of the lines that cried out for subtext, texture or just authentic meaning were given rote emphasis. (Given away especially when failed interruptions left gaping pauses.) When Gottfried lets Anne play – dancing to a record, stripping – she’s at her most genuine. The rest of the time an idea of Anne is being presented onstage. Which is interesting. And good. But not great.
And The Secret Annex clearly wants to be great.
Note: A few days ago, I was emailing back and forth with a theatre gourmet about a different show. A performance I wrote was authentic and affecting they described as absent and effected. And we both stuck to our guns. So who knows? If you disagree with my take – and I know some of you do – please say so. There’s no other reward for theatre criticism than good discussion. Not even a paycheque.
The Secret Annex
By Alix Sobler
Tom Hendry stage (MTC)
Through March 8
Directed by Heidi Malazdrewich; with Andrew Cecon, Tal Gottfried, Kevin Kruchikywich, Jennifer Lyon and Daria Puttaert; set and costume design by Charlotte Dean; lighting design by Larry Isacoff; sound design by Michael Wright; accent design and coaching by Shannon Vickers; stage managed by Melissa Novecosky; apprentice stage managed by Airyn Lancaster.
Matthew TenBruggencate is a Winnipeg-based writer. He is owned by two cats. Follow him @tenbruggencate, where is he spreading nasty rumours about you.