Tales From the O'Neill: The Seven Dwarves: A Survival Story
By Sophia Saifi
Two years ago, puppeteer Jean Marie Keevins was coming to terms with her father succumbing to multiple sclerosis. She had become fascinated by the way his world had changed and how his six foot frame was now confined to the constraints of a much shorter wheelchair. Keevins was discussing the trials of being a little person with a Jewish friend when he introduced her to the book, "In Our Hearts We Were Giants."
The book documents the trials and tribulations of The Ovitz family, Transylvanian Jews who have the unique distinction of being one of the few families to enter the concentration camp of Auschwitz and survive intact. Born with the disability of pseudoachondroplasia, the family of seven dwarves became an obsession of the infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. During their time at Auschwitz the brother and sisters were subjected to a series of highly invasive medical experiments.
"Once I got involved in the material, I decided it was a journey I wanted to take along with me," Keevins said. It was the beginning of a journey that culminated in a performance at The O'Neill Theater Center on Saturday June 15.
Directed by Deborah Hertzberg, Seven Dwarves: A Survival Story is a combination of shadow puppetry and live action. It follows the story of the Ovitzes through the eyes of the youngest sister, Perla Ovitz.
Sofiya Cheyenne Perez, an undergraduate at Brooklyn College, played Perla. She also has the same disability as the Ovitzes. Hertzberg and Keevins chose to cast her because according to Keevins, "We felt that it was really important to actually have a little person involved. We don't want to make assumptions about something we don't know about, so I think acknowledging that this was happening to a human being is important."
Puppeteers Spencer Lott and Leila Ghaznavi operated the puppets and acted in the play. The rest of the Ovitz family was depicted in a tiny suitcase that opened to become a toy theatre full of paper puppets. Before the performance, Hertzberg spent a considerable amount of time researching the aesthetics of the play. "We wanted the shadow puppetry to represent an emotional tonal experience," she said.
Bathed in shades of orange, Sofiya sang Gershwin's "But Not For Me," which, when juxtaposed with images of calipers on tiny heads, the silhouettes of barking dogs and the barbed gates of Auschwitz, created a stark and poignant atmosphere of heartbreak.
Perla Ovitz saw Mengele as a sort of savior and considered her experiments better than death at a concentration camp; she is known to have cried at the news of his death.
"I would really like audiences to take away a perspective of responsibility to humanity," said Hertzberg, who said she wants audiences to question the existence of genocide, along with issues of disability and the power of forgiveness.
Seven Dwarves: A Survival Story was workshopped as part of The O'Neill's writer-in-residence program. The script is still in development.
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