- Jerry Rapier
In 1943, during the Nazi occupation of Norway, a group of actors in residence at the Norwegian National Theatre found themselves faced with a dilemma. The acting cultural ministers launched a playwriting contest, which led to the creation of an unabashedly anti-Semitic play titled The Last Scream. Upon receiving scripts for this piece of Nazi propaganda, the acting company wrestled with the decision to either perform the play regardless of its hateful message, or refuse, which could lead to their arrest and possible execution.
This often-overlooked tale from the annals of World War II history fascinated local playwright and retired theater professor Eric Samuelsen when he was completing his dissertation more than 30 years ago, and has since become a passion project that sees its debut this week as Plan-B Theatre Co.'s The Ice Front. "In every sense, this play is an act of love and collaboration," Samuelsen says, "And this group of artists is one that I'm really honored to be able to work with."
Samuelsen's interest in both Norway and theater was initially sparked by his father, Roy, who grew up there and pursued a career as an opera singer. "My father was in Norway during the Nazi occupation," Samuelsen says. "His first public performances were singing and playing guitar in air raid shelters." Throughout high school, Samuelsen was involved in theater. He eventually served an LDS mission to Norway, where he learned the language and became enamored with his heritage culture. After earning a bachelor's degree at BYU and a Ph.D. from Indiana University, he joined BYU's Theatre and Media Arts program as a professor in 1992.
In 2004, Samuelsen started writing for Plan-B Theatre Co., which kicked off a long-running collaboration with Jerry Rapier, the company's artistic director. "We did a call for playwrights for our first SLAM 24-hour theater festival, and Eric submitted," Rapier recalls. "We liked what he wrote so much that we developed it into a full-length play called Miasma, which we produced in 2006."
Rapier, who also directs The Ice Front, first became aware of Samuelsen's idea during Plan-B's monthly playwright lab. Rapier loved the concept of the play, but wasn't sure they could produce it because of the size of the cast—but that was before Donald Trump won the presidential election. "[Plan-B managing director] Cheryl Cluff and I asked each other how we should respond as a socially conscious company, and we made two decisions," Rapier says. "One was to create our (in)divisible project, and the other was to produce Eric's play. It felt prescient last November, and this November it feels prophetic."
Though Samuelsen came up with the idea of the play 30 years ago, he admits that the timing is rather appropriate. "I figured the play would open right in the middle of the hyper-competent, mildly progressive first term of Hillary Clinton, but, boy, did that not happen," he jokes. "The Nazi political philosophy was fundamentally racist, and I really think there's a parallel. Not everyone who voted for Trump is a white supremacist; but every white supremacist voted for Trump."
Samuelsen also notes that the Nazis' decision to leave the Norwegian National Theatre open during their occupation was part of a strategy to normalize their cause, which reminds us of our president's milquetoast reaction to the alt-right rally in Charlottesville earlier this year. "It's pure serendipity, but from the decision to go ahead with the play last summer, finishing the final draft and starting rehearsals, it just seems more and more relevant today," Samuelsen says.
The Ice Front is dedicated to Samuelsen's father, who passed away only a few months ago. "My father was encouraging this project from the beginning, and this past summer, my dad would call me every night and ask about my progress," Samuelsen says. "He'd add some wonderful bits of wisdom, and it brought us closer than we had ever been. It's hard that he won't be able to see the play, but I'm really grateful that we had this wonderful thing to connect over in the last few weeks of his life." From a larger perspective, the play represents the dichotomy between doing what is safe and doing what is right, but that message is all the more poignant considering the impact that Samuelsen's father had on this particular play.
Buzz for The Ice Front has already reached critical mass; Rapier reports that the play's entire run is technically sold out. However, it's still possible to see the show by reporting in-person to the Rose Wagner box office one hour before each performance and adding your name to the pre-paid wait list. Plan-B is also featuring two special previews Nov. 7-8 for those who make a donation to the Utah Film Center and/or the NOVA Chamber Music Series.