A little more than halfway through the performance at the Coterie Theatre, a schoolboy in the audience asked a classmate: "What's so funny?" He was wondering why students from another group — four classes of fourth- to sixth-graders were at the theater — had erupted in laughter several times at Number the Stars.
It's not a comedy (though there is an occasional chuckle-appropriate line). Adapted for the stage by Douglas W. Larche from Lois Lowry's Newbery Medal-winning juvenile novel, Number the Stars — about how the Nazi occupation and Hitler's Final Solution played out in World War II Denmark — is designed for children 10 years old and older, with its clear, uncomplicated conflicts and plot.
Directed by the Unicorn Theatre's Cynthia Levin, the Coterie's coproduction with UMKC Theatre is a high-caliber, involving drama about widespread and heroic resistance to German ideology and policy by both ordinary Danes and those in the government who protected Jewish compatriots (as well as Jewish refugees). An astounding 95 percent of Denmark's Jews survived World War II. All of which means that this play is for grownups, too.
In the 1943 Denmark of this story, the Johansens, a Lutheran family, and their close friends and Jewish neighbors, the Rosens, are set to dine together for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. That plan changes when a sudden push by the Nazis to ferret out members of the underground and round up Jews for deportation spurs the resistance to quick action. They must hide Jews and try to ferry them away on fishing boats to neutral Sweden.
In this climate, children, too, are investigated. A menacing Nazi soldier (Jacob Aaron Cullum) stops and admonishes three girls on their way home from school: "Do you think the street is to play in?" He admires the Aryan features of 10-year-old heroine Annemarie Johansen (Olivia Howell) and her 5-year-old sister, Kirsti (Catie Wolff), but is suspicious of brunette Ellen Rosen (Rachel Brennan Leyh), Annemarie's best friend. He fondles Kirsti's blond pigtail.
Later, Annemarie is walking through the woods on a mission but is stopped by soldiers who, with their trained dogs, are searching for Jews.
The fierce German shepherds aren't live but are clever animations, incorporated in enlarged charcoal drawings projected on backdrops to set the frequently changing scenes (projections designer Douglas Macur).
I don't know what entertained the children in the audience that afternoon, but their laughter sounded like amusement, not nervous tittering. Perhaps they were just being kids, but what was so funny? The 1940s attire (costume design by Katharine Mott)? The German soldiers' accents and native tongue (dialect coach Erika Bailey)? The harassment by German soldiers (a point made here by putting some uniformed characters on patrol in the theater's aisles)?
According to the Coterie, some teachers prepare their students in advance (the Coterie website makes available a range of educational materials, provided by the theater and, for this production, the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education), while others wait until afterward to discuss or study the subject matter.
Wondering if the weekday audience I'd seen was typical (I was told that it wasn't), I attended again on the weekend. The packed house was predictably different in makeup, composed of many more adults accompanying their children, and the audience remained still throughout the affecting performance. The play's tensions radiated from the stage, thanks to a commanding cast that, in addition to those previously mentioned, included Heidi Van as "Mama" Johansen; Martin Buchanan as her brother, Uncle Henrik; Keaton Schmidt as resistance fighter Peter; Manon Halliburton as Mrs. Rosen; and Coleman Crenshaw as Mr. Rosen.
When the show concluded and people slowly filed out of the subdued theater, I overheard a child tell her mother: "It was just like the book." A connection was made.