The Escape Act: A Holocaust Memoir ★★★★

The revealing story of Jewish circus heroes and the 'righteous gentiles' who hid them from the Nazis

Israeli writer and theatre artist Stav Meishar presents her rich narrative of a Jewish circus family’s ordeal in Hitler’s Germany as a new direction in her ongoing Jewish education work. An adept performer, Meishar founded and runs Dreamcoat Experience, which explores Jewish topics through creative means. In The Escape Act her circus skills are key to telling the story of the Holocaust by dramatising one woman’s experiences, as well as the equally eye-opening history of whole dynasties of Jewish circus owners.

Meishar tells of a real escape act, the wartime survival of circus performer Irene Danner-Storm, a member of the Lorch family, whose patriarch Hirsh founded the Lorch Circus in the 19th century. It quickly rose to fame and flourished until the rise of the Nazis all but wiped out the family.

© Kati Rapia

© Kati Rapia

Danner-Storm was offered work and hidden from the Nazis within the Althoff Circus, a non-Jewish, family-run outfit, thanks to the bravery and humanity of its owner Adolf Althoff and his wife Maria.

How she fulfilled her promise in the ring (and above it, on the trapeze as Meishar displays) and found love and companionship among a wonderfully mixed bunch of variously talented circus folk makes for riveting subject matter.

Equally exciting are the different theatrical and multi-media devices the resourceful Meishar employs to bring Danner-Storm and her story to life. You forget it’s a one-woman show as she populates the stage with puppets and interacts with film footage on a large screen behind featuring show elephants and menacing figures of Nazi officials seen in close-up, searching the circus for such undesirables as Jews and dwarves.

© Asaf Sagi

© Asaf Sagi

But this is only part of the story, for Meishar raises the lights on the shared space of stage and auditorium to share her own family history of the survivors’ legacy. Her maternal grandfather is a survivor of the death camps. Her family inherited the narrative that the suffering of Holocaust victims had no part in the story of the vigorous young State of Israel with its native-born generation of sabras. She admits freely how suppressed memory can fester.

Meishar’s skill at Holocaust education shines through in her subtle use of the microcosm of Danner-Storm's story to chart the road to the death camps, from the first insidious rise of Nazism and the gradual isolation and oppression of Germany’s Jews. She is excluded from mainstream school, witnesses the terror of Kristallnacht in 1938 and the deportation of beloved family members before going into hiding herself.

© Kati Rapia

© Kati Rapia

Her family members are movingly represented by tiny pop-up figures hidden away in a briefcase. Valerie Meiss’s puppets also get to ‘play’ the supportive circus folk and their animals, from glove-puppet horses to life-size half mannequins, heads on costumed torsos, for the Althoffs and those Danner-Storm becomes closest to: Peter, the clown she falls for, and Momo the Moroccan acrobat.

Many of these ingenious puppets, along with other props and Rada Manussen’s variety of costume changes, from contemporary scarlet kimono and period floaty frocks to tight-fitting trapeze all-in-one, emerge from a miniature red-striped circus tent. Though there are moments where these costume changes take too long, imagination and hard work with director Shoshana Bass marshal all these elements into a cohesive memorable whole.

By Judi Herman

Header photo by David Konecny

The Escape Act is currently touring:
Thursday 26 September. 7.30pm. £9-£12. Circomedia, Bristol, BS2 8SJ.
Saturday 26 & Sunday 27 October. 8pm. £10. CircusMASH, Birmingham, B14 7RA.
Tuesday 29 October. 8pm. £12, £10 concs. The Lowry, Salford, M50 3AZ.