The Last Cyclist. A Concentration Camp Creation Reaches Television

August 1, 2022

Scene from The Last Cyclist. Photo by Alexander Jorgensen.

A play created by Jewish prisoners at a Nazi concentration camp never received a performance there, but this August, television viewers in New York will be able to witness it in two broadcast-only evenings on THIRTEEN, the PBS station for the New York City metropolitan region. Theater Close-Up: The Last Cyclist premieres Tuesday, August 16 at 9:30 p.m. An encore broadcast follows on Sunday, August 21 at 11 p.m. 

The Last Cyclist is an absurdist, dark comedy in which bicyclists are blamed for all of society’s ills and are rounded up and sent to “Horror Island” for elimination. The play was originally written and rehearsed in 1944 at the notorious Nazi labor camp at Terezín, in what is now the Czech Republic. It was a deadly place of forced labor and a temporary stopover before deportation to death camps, but the Nazis still invited delegates of the International Red Cross to visit Terezín on June 23, 1944. The delegation was tricked into believing the camp, within the former resort and fortress called Theresienstadt,  was a “retirement settlement” for elderly Jewish people.

A nurse figure in white, with person's face also wearing white make-up, points her finger. Another person cowers nearby.

Scene from The Last Cyclist. Photo by Alexander Jorgensen.

The Last Cyclist has been reconstructed, reimagined and produced by playwright Naomi Patz, who began her research in 1995. She based the play on the 1944 work of original creator, Karel Svenk (March 17, 1917 – April 1, 1945), a cabaret artist and composer from Prague who was an inmate at Terezín. The Last Cyclist depicts a group of prisoners at Terezín rehearsing a slapstick comedy in which escapees from an insane asylum try to take over the world. Because they hate their bike-riding physician, once they escape the asylum, they target all cyclists. They exploit the growing anti-cyclist hysteria by plotting to eliminate everyone whose family has had anything to do with bicycles for several generations. Good ultimately conquers evil, but only on the stage.

Patz salvaged the lost play—originally banned due to its overt anti-Nazi allegory—through a process of cultural anthropology, basing her work on a 1965 essay about theater in Terezín. The film The Last Cyclist was made during a performance before a live audience at the avant-garde La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in the East Village of New York City.

Notable Talent

The music score is by award-winning composer Stephen Feigenbaum. Feigenbaum adapted Svenk’s “Terezín March” (courtesy of the Terezín Music Foundation and its director, Mark Ludwig) and used fragments of songs Svenk wrote in the camp in sections like the play’s, “Dear Red Cross Guest.”

The artwork for the opening title sequence is by Mark Podwal. The play and film adaptation was directed by Edward Einhorn.

Performers

Three actors on a stage wear; two have stars of David on their clothing.

Patrick Pizzolorusso (center) as Karel Svenk, Borivoj Abeles in The Last Cyclist. Photo by Alexander Jorgensen.

Craig Anderson – Franta, Celery, Sweep, Lunatic 4
Lynn Berg – Ota, Opportunist, Big Shot, offstage announcer
Kirsten Hopkins – Zuzana, Lunatic 2
Timur Kocak – Tomáš, Head Physician, Lunatic 3, Other Cyclist, newsboy
Ambrose Martos – Leo, Lunatic 1
Jenny Lee Mitchell – Elena, Ma’am, Mrs. Maničkova
Eric Emil Oleson – Jiří, Hitler, Rat
Patrick Pizzolorusso – Karel Švenk, Bořivoj Abeles
Alyson Leigh Rosenfeld – Jana Šedová, Mánička, Red
Clay Westman – Pavel, violinist, Rich, Mr. Hippo
Judy Blazer – Older Šedová voice-over
Marina Dessena – Piano

Learn more about the LaMama production, film and cast and creative team on the official site of The Last Cyclist.

Theater Close-Up is a unique collaboration between THIRTEEN and New York City-area Off-Broadway and regional theaters, shining a primetime spotlight on a diverse mix of innovative theater productions.