Numbers portrays the Holocaust through dance sequences

Robyn Kay-Pilarski’s play Numbers is innovative and inventive.

The Toronto Fringe Festival production, playing until Sunday, July 15, at the Factory Theatre, turns on the Holocaust in Poland. A mélange of drama and dance, it unfolds in sharply etched segments on a stage virtually bereft of props.

The German occupation of Poland is seen mainly through the fresh, innocent and uncomprehending eyes of the central character, Felicia (Ella Ballentine), a little girl in a plain red dress.

Ably directed and produced by Lukas Press, Numbers opens in Warsaw in 1938 as Felicia reveals that her ambition is to be either a circus performer or a teacher and that her parents met at a dance.

Then, in seamless fashion, Numbers segues to a brief episode in which three couples and three single women dance frenetically to the beat of a popular Big Band song.

The buoyant mood crumbles in the next segment, which is set on Sept. 1, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland. Felicia cowers in a trunk, frightened, not able to understand what is happening.

In a prelude to what the future holds in store for the residents of Warsaw, particularly Jews, there are food shortages and thundering booms at night. Felicia speculates that people are being shot for no good reason.

Promotional art for Numbers

References to the cruel and oppressive Nazi occupation are announced vividly in fast-moving scenes.

In hip-hop style, dancers dart around the stage in sync with a blaring and ominous German announcement. A solitary individual discloses that synagogues are being desecrated and that one shul already has been converted into a stable. A dancer reveals that 400,000 Jews have been packed into the Warsaw ghetto and that each person inside has been reduced to 200 calories per day.

Ella Ballentine

One of the most chilling scenes occurs when nine dancers, clad in German military uniforms and wearing swastika armbands, perform a loudly rhythmic hip-hop number.

The effect is mesmerizing.

A misbegotten joke about a dead chicken is followed by a stark, stylized scene in which three German soldiers sexually abuse four Jewish women.

The terror of Auschwitz is conveyed by Dr. Josef Mengele, the Angel of Death, dressed in shimmering white.

The demise of Nazi tyranny is symbolized in two succinct scenes. Felicia, having been hidden by a Polish Catholic family during the war, is liberated by a Red Army soldier and reunited with her father.

Thanks to its riveting dance arrangements, Numbers portrays the Holocaust differently but effectively.

The male and female performers breathe fire into their dance routines, captivating an audience, and the precocious Ella Ballentine deftly carries the weight of the play on her pre-adolescent shoulders.

Sparkling with verve and energy, Numbers  is highly recommended.