'Butterfly' takes away joy of discovery

I had my suspicions the moment director Melissa Lilly made a pre-curtain speech telling the audience that "I Never Saw Another Butterfly" was an "inspirational" play. The Las Vegas Academy of International Studies, Performing and Visual Arts does many things well theatrically, but "inspirational" is not one of them.

Celeste Raspanti's 1971 one-act gives us a Holocaust as seen through the eyes of children.

The fictional story of the nonfictional Raja (Rebecca Carrol) -- she was one of 15,000 children shipped to a waiting station in a Terezin ghetto before entering Auschwitz -- is told through actual poems, diaries, letters, journals and artwork that the youngsters left behind. (Only about 100 survived, including Raja.) The script is an interesting read, because it puts a face on the cold facts of history.

The 23 cast members do a surprisingly fierce job of committing to their roles. You can see the separations in thought, the clarity.

When Max Wolf, as Teddy, describes what it's like to eat black potatoes and sleep on a concrete floor, you feel as if the actor is connecting in a very personal way to what he's describing.

When Jessica Browning, as Gabriela, vows, "I will not die," you sense a lot of weariness underneath her upbeat words.

And Matthew Ortile as a rabbi, and as the loudspeaker voice of a threatening German soldier, offers a major measure of authority, far beyond his years.

But the director doesn't seem to trust the audience to be moved. She pours on the tears, the quivering voices, the screaming. The monotony makes us wish that we ourselves could be set free.

Don't children, even in the toughest of times, have an occasional lighter side? Might the kids get excited at the chance to write poetry or paint?

There's a teacher, Irena (Julia Haven-Dingle, double-cast) who tries to cheer the doomed innocents' spirits. But there's no optimism in this Irena. Haven-Dingle displays her emotions upfront, so that when we later find out her own horror stories, we're not surprised. And you wonder how any child could believe this depressed woman's vow that everything will be alright.

I wish Lilly would concern herself more with complexities of characterization, rather than inspiration. The director tells us every step of the way how we're supposed to feel. She robs the audience of the joy of discovery.

Anthony Del Valle can be reached at DelValle@aol.com. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.