Pepicek and Aninku are down on their luck. The troubled Czech children have a sick mom at home who needs milk, but they haven't a crown to their names. What's worse is that the local organ grinder -- a mean street musician with white gloves, a caterpillar mustache, and a piratelike flopping hat -- won't even let them sing for money, claiming the street corner is all his. Forced to sleep alone in a dark and scary forest, the poor little tykes must await whatever lies in store. If this sounds like a twisted children's storybook tale, that's because it is. And the scribe behind the curtain is playwright Tony Kushner, teamed up here with Where the Wild Things Are author/ illustrator Maurice Sendak for the world premiere of Brundibar.
A magical meandering through a dreamy Prague of yesteryear, this $1 million musical fable is speckled with flying zeppelins and animated moons, and features stilt-walkers, aerialists, and a chorus of 29 kids. It's Berkeley Rep's holiday show, and it's a visual and aural feast. But the seemingly innocent tale has a darker side that alludes to the harm that comes to children during times of persecution and war.
Brundibar, which is Czech for "bumblebee," is an adaptation of a children's opera composed by Hans Krása and written by Adolf Hoffmeister in Prague in the late 1930s. It was a hit but had its success in a most unexpected place -- the "model" concentration camp of Terezín, where Krása was an inmate and in charge of music for the "Free Time Activities Administration." The play survived the war; Krása and the other Jewish artists and children who gave it life did not. The one-act musical, its libretto adapted by Kushner and its design by Sendak, is paired here with another adaptation taken from the same time and place:Václav Kliment Klicpera's Comedy on the Bridge. In this absurdist piece, five people find themselves unhappily stuck together on a sprawling, old-world Eastern European bridge. Allowed to walk onto the bridge but not to exit on the other side, the peasants squabble pettily, oblivious to the bombs going off all around them.
Tickets are $15-64
Sendak is known for his darker breed of fairy tale, and Kushner's got a rep for political dramatization, so it's no surprise that the two have pulled together an evening of such historically rich, contemplative mirth. Despite the plays' wartime origins, they still boast brilliant and animated fun. And in Brundibar, justice does prevail: A host of Sendakian forest characters helps save Pepicek and Aninku from the evil organ grinder. Giant sparrows, talking dogs, big fish with troll feet, and other wacky creatures come to the children's aid, swearing unity and reciting fierce mantras of resistance. "Let us be brave," they say, "and make bullies behave!"