It was the show that wouldn’t die.
Karel Švenk’s “The Last Cyclist,” written and performed in the “model” concentration camp of Terezin, comes to the Upper West Side this weekend after a circuitous route to the New York stage. The cabaret-style play, which is a farcical allegory of the genocide of the Jews, was banned by the Jewish Council in the camp, for fear of reprisals from the Nazis. Adapted by Naomi Patz, it has its New York premiere at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew after productions in St. Paul, Chicago, and other cities.
Švenk was a popular theater director in Czechoslovakia before the outbreak of the Second World War; he reminded many of both Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Imprisoned in Terezin, he organized cabarets like “The Lost Food Card,” which concluded with the Terezin Hymn, a stirring Czech anthem that expressed the inmates’ hope for freedom. “The Last Cyclist” was banned by the Nazis, along with fellow Terezin inmate Viktor Ullmann’s opera “The Emperor of Atlantis,” but was finally performed after the war in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Czech Communist Party. Then it slipped into obscurity.
In “The Last Cyclist,” directed by Edward Einhorn, a group of inmates escape from an insane asylum and vow to wreak revenge on the doctor who administered their injections and electric shock therapy. Because the doctor rides a bicycle, they decide to murder anyone who rides bicycles. After a series of misadventures in the town hall, zoo and other locales, the former inmates are sent off on a rocket ship into space by the heroic last cyclist, who turns the tables on his persecutors.
Patz, an accomplished playwright and Hebrew translator (her husband, Norman Patz, is a retired congregational rabbi in New Jersey; their nephew is the missing Etan Patz) found a typescript of the play in the archive of a theater institute in Prague. She told The Jewish Week that the play is a “silly, loony, slapstick” testament to the “creativity that flourished in Terezin.” Patz enlisted artist Mark Podwal to create an original artwork for the production; the evocative drawing depicts an empty bicycle, with Hebrew letters on the spokes, balancing on a tightrope over shtetl rooftops.
The title of the play, Patz said, comes from an interwar Czech joke blaming the Jews and cyclists for all of society’s troubles. “Why the cyclists?” is the rejoinder. The punch line: “Why the Jews?”
“The Last Cyclist” runs through June 9 at the West End Theater, located on the second floor of the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, 263 W. 86th St. Performances are Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. For tickets, $18, call (212) 352-3101 or visit www.thelastcyclist.com.