ERHS’s one-act entry is ‘The Cowbird,’ serious tale of pre-war Nazi Germany

Andy Tyler as cocky SS officer Johan Randow flirts with all the women at a family gathering but frightens guest Rachel (Ana Purtle), who is Jewish, unbeknownst to him. (Photo by Bruce Strand)

by Bruce Strand, Arts editor

“The Cowbird,” a wrenching tale about a fateful secret revealed in a Nazi family in pre-war Germany, is Elk River’s entry in MSHSL one-act plays competition.

ERHS will host the sub-section today at Zabee Theatre beginning 10 a.m., with “The Cowbird” slated for 10:45 a.m.

Directed by Phil Bologna and featuring a veteran cast, the play opened at the Northwest Suburban Conference festival on Tuesday evening at Centennial. It will be shown for the public at ERHS’s Zabee Theatre on Friday and Saturday nights, beginning 7 p.m., actually a double-feature as a non-competition comedy, “Romeo and Who’s Collette?” will also  be presented.

Moriah Babneau as Greta has a painful confession to make to her priest, played by Jarret St. Jean. (Photo by Bruce Strand)

The title of “The Cowbird,” written by Jess Westberg, refers to a bird that lays its eggs in the next of another bird to raise the young.

Moria Babneau plays Gerta Kassel, who, with Germany prepping for war and rounding up Jews, must unveil a painful secret she had hoped to take to her grave — that her  son, Otto, an SS officer, was not her real son. She had stolen him another family as an infant, after her husband and child were killed in a WWI raid — and the family she stole Otto from was Jewish.

Michael Anderson plays Otto, a confident officer dedicated to the Nazi goals, including eliminating Jews, who is shattered by the news that he’s actually Jewish himself. But he quickly changes course toward what he feels is an honorable solution, one that gives the play a shocking, twist ending.

Kelsey Rausch is his young wife, Magda, whose near-perfect life as a newlywed in love is shattered by the revelation. “What I like about this play is its depth. I have to be very mature,” said Rausch.

Babneau’s role is pivotal as she struggles to tell her secret first to a priest (Jarret St. Jean), then to Rachel (Ana Purtle), sister of the boy she stole, who reacts with anger, and finally to Otto himself. Babneau, a junior, is a veteran of ERHS and community theatre.

Otto's wife Magda (right), played by Kelsey Rausch, listens while her mother, played by Rachel Wagenpfeil, reads Nazi propoganda skeptically. The maid is played by Cara Fromm. (Photo by Bruce Strand)

It happens that Rausch and Babneau visited the Holocaust Museum as part of a Civics Class trip to Washington, D.C.

“We saw their shoes, and suitcases, and things like that,” said Rausch. “That helps you understand.”

Babneau’s role is pivotal as she struggles to tell her secret first to a priest (Jarret St. Jean), then to Rachel (Ana Purtle), sister of the boy she stole, who reacts with anger, and finally to Otto himself.

The ERHS junior has been in several musicals and comedies since ninth grade, and this fall had a dramatic role in another serious play, “Dracula,” by Children’s Workshop. Her tense and halting delivery of the painful news works well. “I had to think of sad things, and I went back to Dracula a lot, too,” she said.

In eighth grade, Rausch and Babneau visited the Holocaust Museum as part of a school trip to Washington, D.C. The experience is beneficial now. “That helps us a lot,” said Babneau.

Andy Tyler has lots of stage presence as true-believer SS officer Johan Randow, Otto’s best friend, also a charmer who loves to fawn over all the women. He researched the SS on Wipikeda. “They were a lot of ego-centric, cold-hearted jerks,”  said Tyler.

Tyler always has close-cropped hair but this week bleached it from brown to blonde for the Aryan look idealized by the Nazi’s.

“People were telling me today, ‘You look like a Nazi,’ even before they knew what it was for.”

Rachel Wagenpfeil plays Madam Von Ahlen, Magda’s idealistic mother who sticks up for the Jews in defiance of the SS officers but orders Magda to part from Otto once she learns his origin. The cast also includes Cara Fromm as Sophie, the Kassel’s maid.

Also contributing are Josh Gregersen (crew chief), Vicky Anantophong (lights), Glorya Kackman (costumes), Chris White (sets), Deb Dorosier (wigs, hair, props).

See a comedy also

The other play ERHS will presented on Friday and Saturday evening is the comedy “Romeo and Who’s Collette,” directed by ERHS senior actor/singer Jordan Grzybowski. This play was written by Bologna and first performed by ERHS several years ago.The one-act play version is shortened from the original.

There's few men in Verona, so Mervoglio, played by Adam Habarney, is mobbed by several excited females. (Photo by Bruce Strand)

After most of the men of Verona are killed off by feuding, one of the few remaining, a jolly chap named Mervoglio played by Adam Habarneh, is mobbed by the community’s man-hungry women and revels in the attention. Megan Patterson plays Collette, who snags the lucky guy. Another prime role is Zach Powell as a guy who’s name isn’t Romeo but is called thus by his mother who grieves the lost lover.

The cast — Autumn Laniel, Bridgette Hulse, Chelsey DeMers, Megan Patterson, Zach Powell, Meagan Marsh, Adam Habarney, Sammy Kish, Ashley Harms, Hope Martindale, Alicia Brady, Darlene Revell, Ashley Harms, Madeline O’Connor, Alex McCormick, Beth Brady, Grace Heyne, Beth Thompson … Tech: Natalia Herbes

All-NWSC picks

Actors Jordan Grzbowski and Megan Patterson and tech contributor Josh Gregerson  were named to the all-Northwest Suburban Conference team for drama at the conference festival Tuesday. Bologna said the trio were picked for year-long excellence.

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