Even though it's 20 years old, Ilsa, Queen of the Nazi Love Camp is still relevant. While people deride the supposedly politically correct sphere we currently live in, one look at Ilsa now shows that our society hasn't really come that far. With the Calgary-based Aryan Guard spreading their hate speech, Ilsa's message about the horrifying and disturbed nature of denying history and reality is still needed.
Originally created by local theatre company One Yellow Rabbit as a satirical reaction to the then-ongoing James Keegstra trials, the play features a trifecta of comical characters. Andy Curtis plays Keegstra as a doofus with a Howdy Doody streak and a self-righteous side a mile long. OYR ensemble member Denise Clark plays the Teutonic Temptress--the titular Ilsa--to pitch perfection. Her German accent doesn't detract from her performance, something that can't always be said for some theatre companies. Lastly is Michael Green, co-artistic director of OYR as the Colonel, a Nazi military officer who escaped to Uruguay after the war. Green's performance is the most varied. In some parts, he plays a maniacal, over-the-top Nazi who can make a mockery of Hitler and then suddenly get deadly serious.
Even though there are three main characters, the actors slip into other roles from time to time to help drive the story along. Many of these characters come with hyper-kinetic physicalities and it's impressive to see the three sing, dance and move with such force over the play's 90 minutes.
Ilsa is a musical and where most musicals are extravagant affairs featuring intricate song and dance numbers with an entire orchestra, Ilsa instead features two musicians, both of whom performed the music in the play's original run. Karl Roth's violin work is exquisite and heartfelt with composer/pianist David Rhymer's music is evocative when necessary and light and airy when the comedy is needed.
As a celebration of One Yellow Rabbit's 25th anniversary, there's a lot to consider when watching the play. Originally produced for $500 in 1987, it still retains its original time period and set. Tires litter the stage, and the only major set piece is a bed frame with a truck's rusting hood attached. The play isn't a technical tour de force with expansive sets and gorgeous pyrotechnics. The more intimate setting of the Big Secret Theatre and the simple set help to drive home the play's point: that it's impossible to deny a well documented event without looking like a foolish dunce.
Throughout the play, there is an interplay between Keegstra's anti-Semitic rants to his class and the disregard given to him by the community. In the beginning, he comes across as a lovable crackpot--who then opens his mouth about the Jews and loses any real sympathy. This is contrasted to the Colonel and Ilsa, who are very much proud of their work in Nazi Germany. It shows how deluded Keegstra really is when he talks about how the Nazis were really secret Jews to the Colonel's grimacing shock and dismay.
Conversely, listening to the absurdity of some of the Nazis more carnal indulgences are a treat. For example, in the play, Ilsa boils down the core of the Nazi's sex camps in one simple statement: "I had to whack Hitler off."
This little bit of comedy is a nice little indulgence for the audience, but at times the play switches gears suddenly into super-serious mode. After nearly 90 minutes of laughing at the incredibly stupid shtick of two Nazis and a Holocaust-denier, the play suddenly gets sombre with the final musical number "Sun Goes Down Over Auschwitz." It's a gut-punch par excellence, one that makes the audience member suddenly realize that while it's fun to laugh at the incredible ignorance of Keegstra, what he was denying in the first place was an absolute atrocity.
Even though Ilsa, Queen of the Nazi Love Camp is a comedy, the deeper message is still very much out there. This isn't some play that attempts to make you think about its themes. When you have people still spouting the same uninformed tripe even 20 years later, you don't need to couch your theme in a subtle manner.
Ilsa, Queen of the Nazi Love Camp runs at Big Secret Theatre until Sun., Apr. 12.
Tickets at Ticketmaster.