Sur­vival songs

The musical KAMP re­veals a lit­tle-known part of WWII, when gay men kept cul­ture alive in the dark­est of cir­cum­stances.

The Coast - - ARTS - BY TARA THORNE KAMP To Novem­ber 11 Nep­tune Theatre Sco­tia­bank Stage, 1593 Ar­gyle Street $30-$50 nep­tunethe­atre.com

“It

blew my mind. I thought, ‘This is a musical beg­ging to be writ­ten,’” says Garry Wil­liams. Wil­liams was vis­it­ing Sach­sen­hausen, a Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camp north of Ber­lin. He learned the site had housed a sub­camp for ho­mo­sex­ual men, “so they wouldn’t spread the gay,” he says. The pris­on­ers were some­how able to come to­gether reg­u­larly “to put on cul­tural evenings, read­ings and cabaret per­for­mances, in­clud­ing satir­i­cal songs about the camp.”

In the en­su­ing years Wil­liams, a com­poser and ac­tor (and artis­tic direc­tor of DaPoPo Theatre), has joined forces with the play­wright Jamie Bradley and af­ter a few staged read­ings and per­for­mances, the re­sult­ing show, KAMP, has be­come Eastern Front Theatre’s big­gest pro­duc­tion ever. It opens tonight as a co-pro­duc­tion on Nep­tune’s sec­ond stage.

“I never knew about the ho­mo­sex­ual vic­tims of the Holo­caust,” says Wil­liams, a gay man who grew up in Ber­lin. “Even af­ter the lib­er­a­tion from World War II, ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was still a crime. Pris­on­ers who sur­vived were still crim­i­nals—there were no of­fers of repa­ra­tions, no one was con­sid­er­ing them bona fide vic­tims of Nazi ter­ror.”

“The sec­ond World War is pretty well-cov­ered; un­for­tu­nately the sto­ries of these men are not,” says Bradley, who pulled re­search from a tiny hand­ful of mem­oirs. “I tried to imag­ine what it was like, which was dif­fi­cult since I have a soft life.”

Di­rected by Eastern Front’s artis­tic direc­tor Sam Rosen­thal, KAMP is the com­pany’s largest pro­duc­tion in its 25-year his­tory. “See this show be­fore the word spreads and it’s sell­ing out on Broad­way. It’s that good,” Michael Lake wrote for The Coast of a work-in-progress pre­sen­ta­tion last spring. This pro­duc­tion, clock­ing at two-and-a-half hours, em­ploys 29 peo­ple and in­volves mul­ti­ple lev­els of chore­og­ra­phy: Songs, fights, sex. An ob­vi­ous com­par­i­son is Roberto Benigni’s Acad­emy Award­win­ning film Life is Beau­ti­ful from 1998.

“There’s a ma­jor dif­fer­ence,” notes Wil­liams. “In Life is Beau­ti­ful, the premise is a fa­ther in­vents a fic­tion. It’s an es­capist way of deal­ing with that, to mis­lead his child into be­liev­ing there is no dan­ger.” The men de­picted in KAMP, “they do the op­po­site. They wrote about the tor­ture. They wrote about the prob­a­bil­ity of their mur­der. It’s not es­capist. They’re not per­pet­u­at­ing a fan­tasy—they are in fact mak­ing art out of the suf­fer­ing of their life.”

The story of KAMP finds the pris­on­ers at­tempt­ing to put on a par­tic­u­larly am­bi­tious cabaret. Play­wright and com­poser both de­scribe the show as darkly comic. “For me the no­tion of camp al­lows the dark­ness to ex­ist with the light­ness,” says Wil­liams, para­phras­ing Christo­pher Ish­er­wood: “‘It’s not mak­ing fun of some­thing, it’s hav­ing fun with some­thing.’ You set the fact that you are in a dan­ger­ous place where you’re prob­a­bly go­ing to be worked to death, and you choose to per­form that truth in a song.”

“It’s about them try­ing to sur­vive, and try­ing to main­tain their iden­ti­ties,” says Bradley, “to live to­gether with peo­ple you are forced to live with and form­ing a fam­ily. Sup­port­ing each other and not sup­port­ing each other. And hav­ing the re­lease of the hor­ror by ex­press­ing them­selves through hu­mour.”

For the pris­on­ers, says Wil­liams, “their own weapon is wit. They sass and they quip. That’s his­tor­i­cally doc­u­mented. The pris­on­ers who wore the pink tri­an­gle—it’s amaz­ing to imag­ine a Nazi guard hear­ing some­one car­ry­ing a rock and minc­ing.”

RI­LEY SMITH

The pris­on­ers in KAMP try to find the light in the dark­ness.

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