This Isn't Child's Play
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This Isn’t Child’s Play

The Children's Republic tackles tough subjects with some young faces.

Amy Rutherford stands on trial with Peter Hutt, Mark Correia, Katie Frances Cohen, Emma Burke-Kleinman, and Elliot Larson in The Children's Republic. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

The Children’s Republic
Tarragon Theatre
(30 Bridgman Avenue)
November 8 to December 18, Tuesdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m.

In times of tragedy, injustice, and horror, it’s hard to put oneself in the place of those suffering—especially in the place of children. From the perspective of an outsider, we assume children must have lacked the strength of character and mind to properly deal with events like the Holocaust. We see them as passive participants, protected by the adults in their lives. However, that’s a mindset that Dr. Janusz Korczak worked to eradicate.

The Children’s Republic, a co-production between Tarragon Theatre and the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company, is based on the life of Korczak, a doctor and author who ran an orphanage for Jewish children in Warsaw from 1912 to 1942. While children were either ignored or belittled by adults at the time, Korczak treated his wards as equals, addressing their concerns, fears, triumphs, and quirks with respect. We begin in 1938, with Korczak (Peter Hutt) bringing young teen (he’s not sure how old he is) Israel (Mark Correia) off the streets and into the orphanage. There we meet other charges, a brassy but loving Mettye (Katie Frances Cohen), a well-spoken but timid Misha (Elliott Larson), and later, violin prodigy Sara (Emma Burke-Kleinman). With his no-nonsense assistant Stefa (Kelli Fox), Korczak provides a home for these children to attend school, deal with their troubled pasts, but also to love and be loved by new friends, sing songs, and be kids. That is until Act Two starts, and we are plunged into 1942; the orphanage moves into the Jewish Ghetto, with food and medicine quickly depleting. The time for child’s play is over, and as Korczak and Stefa desperately try to keep all 200 of their orphans alive, they end up relying on the maturity and courage of those they’re trying to protect.

The Children’s Republic is the latest from playwright Hannah Moscovitch, teamed up again with Alisa Palmer who directed Moscovitch’s breakout hit East of Berlin. While it isn’t her best work yet, it is yet another example of why she’s one of Canada’s most exciting talents. The first act relies heavily on the characters of the children—their personalities, their back stories, and their relationships with each other. But, as hard-edged as they are, they’re willing to divulge few details, which is just as frustrating for the audience as it is for Korczak. Stefa comes off as such a naysayer that it’s unclear as to how she partnered with Korczak in the first place. While the character of schoolteacher Mrs. Singer (Amy Rutherford) is a useful foil for the doctor, showing just how radical Korczak’s attitudes towards children were at the time in a “trial” after she rips up a drawing by Israel, most of the first act comes off with low stakes.

But the second act, with an arresting set change (designed by Camellia Koo) done onstage by the children, really shows that Moscovitch is at her best when her characters are at their worst. Both Hutt and Fox reveal new dimensions to their characters, a compassionate Stefa and a frightened Korczak, while the children take theirs to new heights. Cohen, Correia, Burke-Kleinman, and Larson all show an impressive maturity when tackling such demanding situations, as well as frivolity, with Moscovitch’s well-placed reminders that they are still children after all who still tease each other about cooties and boyfriends.

While Korczak’s story will be new to most people, and the experiences of the children caught in the middle of the Jewish Ghetto aren’t often told, The Children’s Republic resembles a tale we’ve heard before and misses the unique voice that Moscovitch does so well in East of Berlin and this year’s SummerWorks offering, Little One. Nevertheless, it is a well-acted, well-written, haunting, and heartfelt exploration of the strength of moral character in times of horror, no matter the person’s age.