THE incredible little-known story of two Polish doctors who saved thousands of lives in World War II by creating a phony typhus outbreak is hitting the stage for the first time in Fremantle.
Produced by the Perth French Theatre company, Les Crapauds Fous (The Crazy Frogs) is set in Poland in 1940, a year after Germany invaded and Hitler seized control.
When one of Dr Eugène Lazwoski’s friends in a tiny Polish village is summoned to a “labour camp”, he injects him with the typhus vaccine and immediately tests him for the disease.
The small amount of dead bacteria yields a ‘positive’ result and his friend is exempted and can stay in the village.
Along with his friend and fellow doctor Stanislaw Matulewicz, they hatch a plan to widely distribute the phony vaccine, convincing the German hierarchy that a typhus epidemic has broken out.
The Nazis begin quarantining areas with suspected typhus cases, including those with Jews, with the doctors’ plan saving thousands of lives. Eventually the SS find out about the ruse, forcing Dr Lazwoski to flee to the United States at the tail end of the war.
The amazing story will be performed entirely in French with English surtitles (displayed on a video screen above the stage) and will feature a sprawling cast of 18 amateur performers from the Perth French Theatre company.
There will be music composed by Australian artist Petro Vouris, extensive costume changes and a narrative that flits between 1990 and 1940.
Les Crapauds Fous director Stella Sulak says it’s a challenging but very rewarding production.
“I really like working with a large group. It’s full of energy. But before tackling the production of a play, it is essential for me to ‘train’ the group through theatre training for at least a year and get professional artists and technicians to surround them,” Sulak says.
“All PFT groups are made up of amateurs who love theatre and French language. In each group, the ages and origins are always varied. I like this diversity. It is rich and complex, like life.
“The actors have different levels of French, but everyone works in the same direction with pleasure and passion to present the best possible show. Their enthusiasm fuels my creativity.”
Aside from the odd black comedy like The Producers, the holocaust and humour don’t normally mix, but Les Crapauds Fous is billed as a comedic play.
Sulak says the pitch-perfect writing of Mélody Mourey – the French actress and playwright who wrote Les Crapauds Fous, which was nominated for three Molière awards in 2019 – ensures it is respectful.
“This tragedy has marked my own story. My father was Polish, and my mother was Jewish. So you can imagine,” Sulak says.
“The play’s subject matter is oppressive and, unfortunately, still relevant. But the characters are endearing, humorous and authentic.
“They have enabled us to approach this tragedy with sensitivity and respect without being overwhelmed by its horror.
“This is the essence of comedy, allowing us to reflect without becoming emotionally shattered.”
Before and after the show, a pop-up Polish village bar will be selling Pierogi Polish dumplings and drinks, and the final performance will include a party with French and Polish music.
Sulak hopes the production will unite the French, Polish, Jewish and Australian communities in Perth.
“It is a beautiful experience for French people living far away from home to stay connected to their roots,” Saluk says.
“It is an exciting experience for those who are learning French. This opportunity is excellent for everyone, especially in a place where so many communities are living together.”
Les Crapauds Fous is at the Naval Store on Queen Victoria St in Fremantle from November 8 – November 11. Tix at events.humanitix.com/les-crapauds-fous.
by STEPHEN POLLOCK