Remembering the women of Ravensbrück in the cardiac shadow

In the middle of winter in Edmonton, in a world with rising racial tensions, immigrant detention centres and more and more political leaders who are easy to describe as dictators, it’s not hard to reflect on the atrocities of World War II, especially as we approach International Holocaust Rememberance Day on January 27.

Ten years ago Trevor Schmidt, Artistic Director of Northern Light Theatre, first read the sparse script of the cardiac shadow, which is about four women selected from the Ravensbrück concentration camp to participate in Nazi experiments designed to measure the human body’s endurance to extreme temperatures. The specific set of experiments this play focuses on was reviving a male victim who had been submerged in icy water to near death by placing him in a bed with the naked women, with doctors timing how long revival took and the effects on the victim’s internal organs. Trevor says the script immediately struck him as poetic and hopeful, despite the horror it’s based in. “In the midst of this horrible situation in the Holocaust, there’s these beautiful, poetic, lyrical things that Clay McLeod Chapman has written and what comes through is the idea of the indominability of the human spirit. The idea that the human spirit can resist such horror is really moving to me.”

Having programmed the cardiac shadow 18 months ago, before the issues of a border wall shut down the United States government and children died in immigrant detention centres, Northern Light Theatre’s timing is once again all too relevant with this show. Trevor comments, “I think we’re in a perilous time in terms of our own political world and society. I think we’re sliding down a slippery slope if we think that things like the Holocaust are so long ago and they don’t happen anymore – you only need to open up a paper. A lot of people have suggested to me that maybe we need trigger warnings for this show, but… this play is a warning. If we forget what happened, we will repeat it. There is nothing graphic or violent that people require trigger warnings for, but I think the ideas that are present and the history that hangs over this actual true life situation that happened is profoundly disturbing, espeically when it’s juxtaposed with the emotional hard work that is done by these women to get through this trial experiment that they’re involved in.”

While the script itself is only about 12 pages, Northern Light Theatre and Good Women Dance Collective (who are co-producers of this show) have had the freedom to integrate a complex score, film, and movement work with the script to expand it to a one-hour piece. Trevor explains, “we’ve made a lot of carefully thought out decisions about every aspect of this production. From the soundtrack that Dave Clark has done, which is very intelligent… each woman has a motif based on a certain instrument (a drum, a violin, a cello and a piano) – there are moments where they duet dance together and thier instruments duet… The first 12 minutes of the show are a film that we watch, but we chose not to film the dancers because I didn’t want the audience to see their bodies until they are real, live bodies in front of us and we can’t look away from them. I wanted the visceral quality of thier human figure on stage – I didn’t want them on film first.”

The play is brought to life by Good Women Dance Collective moving on stage while the text comes to the audience via audio recordings. Trevor said this disembodied set up was crucial for him in setting the stage for this story. “To separate the movement from the voice affords us a strange disconect and distance which is also profoundly different in terms of what we’ve seen in a lot of theatre productions. We’re also staging it in a way that there’s a barrier between the audience and the performers. It’s you as an observer, just as the doctors observed the people in the experiment. There is a strange remove that I think will be unsettling to people.”

As co-producers and performers, Good Women Dance Collective has brought a vulnerability to the roles of the four women they play on stage. “They are brave, powerful women who are willing to take huge risks and be really wholy unattractive in various ways. I don’t mean how they look – they’ve chosen to be completely vulnerable. It’s been a blessing to work with them.”

These elements of film, dance, voice acting, and sound design combine to tell a story that at its heart is about remembering the four unnamed women who were part of these Nazi experiments and the resiliancy of the human spirit. Trevor explains, “the truth is, these are four voices that we never got to hear. In reality, we have one quote from one of them written in the doctor’s diary and that’s it. We know they were working in Ravensbrück and were brought over for this experiment, having been offered the opportunity to come over to participate in the experiment for half a year and told that they would be released after it. The one woman who is quoted said ‘rather half a year in a whorehouse than half a year in a concentration camp.’ We don’t have names, we don’t know who they were and the idea that there’s some record of thier humanity is important to me… All four of these women find different ways in the show to deal with what’s happening to them and we as an audience have the horrifying hindsight of knowing what will likely happen to them. The juxtaposition between thier hopeful ideas and thier survival tactics to keep themselves alive and us knowing that that’s likely not going to happen is where the real pain and beauty come from in this piece.”

the cardiac shadow plays at the Studio Theatre in the ATB Financial Arts Barns January 18 – February 2. Tickets are $26.25 – $31.50 through Northern Light’s box office. Special events during the run are as follows:

  • Thursday, January 17 – Pay-what-you-can previw (and free student preview, with student i.d.)
  • Sunday, January 20 (matinee) – Pre-show director’s circl event
  • Tuesday, January 22 – two-for-one tickets at the door
  • Wednesday, January 23 – post-show NLT guest speaker salon
  • Thursday, January 24 – post-show actor talk back
  • Tuesday, January 29 – two-for-one tickets at the door