Adapted by Naomi Patz
August 17 – September 1
The Last Cyclist is a play written and rehearsed in the Terezín Concentration Camp but never performed. It was feared that its bitter satire of the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis would bring reprisals down on the inmates. The play was thought to be lost but has been pieced together and adapted by Naomi Patz and is a valuable contribution to Holocaust literature.
The story is a daring, gallows-humor, absurdist allegory that expands on the “Jews and the cyclists” theme: The inmates of a mental institution, led by “Ma’am” and “Rat” escape from the asylum and take over the outside world. They hound, oppress, exile or kill everyone who rides a bicycle and anyone who has ever had anything to do with cyclists for many generations back. After a series of ridiculous misadventures, the hero defeats the lunatics by accidentally shooting them off to the moon on the rocket ship they themselves had built to finally get rid of him, the last remaining cyclist. He tells the audience, “Go home! You are free!” but his girlfriend, Manicka, objects: “Only on the stage is there a happy ending. Out there, where you are, our troubles continue.”
The Last Cyclist is an example of the extraordinary resilience displayed by concentration camp inmates. Incredibly, Švenk’s play is funny and was meant to be funny. The audiences at Terezín that attended the open rehearsals of The Last Cyclist laughed and we are meant to laugh too. But ours is uncomfortable laughter: first because we realize that the play is not just a joke but, rather, a brave protest against totalitarianism; and, second, because we know the fate of the cast and the rest of the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust. The play, in a non-confrontational way, clearly demonstrates that it is the personal responsibility of every human being to fight intolerance, prejudice, bullying and racism.
Naomi Patz, D.J.R.E., adapted and reimagined The Last Cyclist based on Karel Švenk’s cabaret of the same name. She has written one-act plays on Jewish themes, Purim spiels, Shabbat and Rosh Hashanah liturgies and A Word to the Wise, a dramatization of Jewish folk tales set to music. With her husband, she translated The Third Cry, a fantasy play by Yaakov Cahan, and Al HaTorah (“For the Torah”), a short story by S. J. Agnon. She is an author of nine books, including monographs on the destroyed Jewish communities of Dvur Kr´lové and Jihlava in the Czech Republic, and the prayer book Siddur Netivot Sholom. She edited The Forum, a quarterly journal on Israel-Diaspora relations, and the Judaica Series for the UJA National Young Leadership Cabinet, as well as many other books and journals. From 1987-1994, she directed the North American Jewish Forum, the counterpart organization to the Israeli Forum, and from 1994-2001 was U.S. director of Partnership 2000. A Barnard graduate, she holds master’s degrees in English literature from Old Dominion University and in Jewish education from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1995.
The Last Cyclist was directed by Elizabeth Margolius and was produced in association with the National Pastime Theater and was made possible by the generous support of the Dramatists Guild Fund, the Jewish Community Foundation, and Robert Klutznick and the Javitch Foundation
- Andrea DeCamp – Ensemble
- Amy Gray – Manichka/Ensemble
- Steve Griest – Svenk/Abeles
- Michael Hall – Rat/Ensemble
- Daria Harper – Ma’am/Jana
- Stefanie Johnsen – Lunatic/Ensemble
- Charlie Rasmann – Mr. Opportunist/Ensemble
- Adrienne Smith – Lunatic/Ensemble/Mrs. Manikova
- Keegan Siebken – Ensemble
A work of heartbreaking inspiration from the most unlikely of places (Scotty Zacher, Chicago Theater Beat)
Performed in promenade style, the audience is allowed to sit amongst the production, with action taking place all about the vast National Pastime space. You may find actors performing right in front of you. It’s a disarming choice for staging, and the production is all the more visceral for it. Walking out after a mere 80 minutes, I found myself somewhat emotionally shell-shocked. Feelings of anger, despair, and sadness all mingled as the profundity of what had been witnessed settled in. Then I realized that that is probably the last thing these people would have wanted of an audience. Yes, remember their sacrifice and suffering, but remember too that even in the depths of such insanity, there were those who resisted nihilism. The Last Cyclist is a testament to the human spirit – even in the face of evil, there were those who used the power of art as a weapon against the encroaching darkness.
The play’s history is nearly as fascinating as the play itself (Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times)
Director Elizabeth Margolius offers an energetic promenade staging in which the audience is free to move around a free-form circular playing area, defined by a few chairs and old trunks doubling as audience seats and platforms for the performers. The nine engaging actors play several characters, chief among them Abeles/Svenk (Steve Greist), Manicka (Amy Gray) and Rat (Mike Hall in dark-haired contrast to the blond Greist). All nine convey just the right degree of exaggeration for the partially-grotesque characters and absurd situations, which nonetheless reflect the twisted logic of all repressive regimes.
The Humor of Trauma (David Y. Chack, All About Jewish Theatre)
The Last Cyclist is a collection of cabaret/vaudeville scenes that were actually rehearsed for a performance by Jewish performing artists but were never performed because the Nazis reviewed them and decided it was too subversive. All but one of the actual performers died in Auschwitz. As a historical artifact The Last Cyclist shows us what Jewish inmates wanted to perform in order to psychically relieve themselves of the suffering they were experiencing and to even perform as an act of resistance against the Nazis, and perhaps meant to be shown for the Red Cross.
So The Last Cyclist through farce and dark comedy, in short vaudevillian style performs the hatred towards the Cyclists who are destroying the world. Slapstick, puppet-like acting, and bad jokes are employed. Images of insane asylums are referenced that are a metaphor for the world.
In addition, The Last Cyclist opened at
The West End Theater in New York in May of 2013.
Here’s what the New York reviewers had to say:
Satire Born in the Face of Horror (Neil Genzlinger, New York Times)
The Last Cyclist isn’t participatory theater in any of the usual senses. No one is called up from Row C to answer trivia questions or dance a jig onstage. But if you’re attending this intriguing exercise in Holocaust history, you should plan to show up in character. To appreciate what you’re going to see, you need to be not a 21st-century theatergoer but rather a prisoner at Theresienstadt, the Nazi concentration camp near Prague.
Watching The Last Cyclist, you realize that this performance is being presented for an audience that isn’t there. You and your fellow theatergoers are its stand-in. This isn’t theater as entertainment; it’s theater as a chance to bear witness.
The Last Cyclist Is An Affecting Fable (Jennifer Farrar, Associated Press)
Probably the most amazing thing about the bitter satire The Last Cyclist is that the original play was written and rehearsed inside a Nazi concentration camp. And watching the crude but well-performed and affecting production that opened Thursday night at the West End Theater, one can’t help thinking about what it was like to actually be trapped in the horrific situation of the original performers and their fellow inmates in those rehearsal audiences.
The purpose of writing and performing satires like The Last Cyclist was to keep up the spirits of dehumanized, starving camp residents. The resurrection of this ironic parable serves as a chilling reminder of the valiant spirits lost in the unthinkable human destruction of the Holocaust.
The Last Cyclist – a humorous spin on tragedy (Sandi Durell, Examiner.com)
How can it be, you say, that theater, music and humor could exist in such a place at such a time? But it did, along with the glorious geniuses Mendelssohn and Offenbach, incarcerated composers. Jewish community somehow was allowed to survive in these circumstances and so, after long hard work days, many of the painters, writers, and scholars who passed through Terezin contributed to the theatre of makeshift stages in crowded barracks and attics, even while their families and fellow inmates were facing the “final solution.”