Review: Three Crows’ The Danish Play Focuses on the Life of a Poet and Resistance Heroine in WW2 Denmark

The Danish Play by Three Crows Theatre is a human and relevant story about the Danish Resistance during World War II. The anti-fascists in Denmark are a small but determined bunch of citizens. The story focuses on Agnete Ottosen, a poet and activist who is imprisoned in the Ravensbruck concentration camp, where she is subjected to torture and involuntary surgeries. The play's action and Agnete's story remind us of the risks of authoritarianism in our current world.

Ottosen was the great aunt of playwright Sonny Mills, who inherited their great-aunt’s diaries, including poems scribbled in the margins of notebooks. Kirstin Franklin directs the play in this US premiere; it was first produced in 2002 in Canada. Three Crows had planned to stage the play four years ago but the pandemic interfered. 

Denmark declared itself neutral in 1939, but as one character in The Danish Play says, “Everyone is neutral until they’re dragged into a war.” Germany invaded in 1940 and placed Denmark under military occupation in 1943. 

The play opens with Agnete (Selena Lopez) applying for a job as an office girl in a lawyer’s office in Aalborg. The lawyer, Mads Pedersen (Stephen Dunn), tries to dissuade her from the job, because he thinks she’s overqualified. But she persuades him she can do the office job as well as contribute to political projects, such as magazine publishing. 

Dolph Paulsen and Kit Ratliff as guards. Photo courtesy of Three Crows Theatre.

Mads is part of a group of four friends of Agnete that the play follows over the years. They meet annually for a Christmas Eve toast and appear in various other scenes, both social and political. The group includes Helga (Lisa Stran); her brother, Michael, a writer and future playwright, played by Kit Ratliff; and Bente (Mackenzie Williams).

In an early scene (probably set in 1944), Agnete is questioned by a Gestapo officer, which leads to her internment. After the war she decides to have a child without marrying or identifying the child’s father. Denmark’s government and legal system make her life miserable, demanding to know who the father is; despite countless battles, she never gains custody of her child. 

A few of Agnete's poems are read or recited in The Danish Play. Here is an excerpt from a Christmas poem, read by Agnete to Michael.

Happy Christmas - we had cabbage to eat today! 
Tonight there'll be a mad rush to our pigsty, the toilet. 
By the sink lies a dead body we're all getting used to the sight and stink of. 
And while people scream and fight and steal what they can from others- 
A child is born, but not for us. 
Hallelujah, it is Christmas. 

Most of the scenes throughout the two-hour play are brief and change quickly. They are somewhat confusing because they move back and forth in time—from the early 1940s to the 1960s. As the scenes change, there’s no identification as to when and where we are, except for an occasional reference to an event or individual. Kennedy and Khrushchev? That must mean this scene is in the 1960s. There are many inexpensive ways to handle this information in staging, but a simple solution would be to add a note on the program handout that the play takes place on several dates from 1940 through 1962. It also would be helpful to have a timeline of Agnete’s life story. (Timeline Theatre is a model for handling this kind of information in telling a theatrical story. See their Backstory and Program Book for their current production here.)

Lisa Stran as Helga and Mackenzie Williams as Bente. Photo courtesy of Three Crows Theatre.

Outside of my frustration about the time settings, The Danish Play is a well-performed play. Selena Lopez is a solid, if stolid, Agnete. Kit Ratliff is particularly strong with their personable performance as Michael. Stephen Dunn’s Mads is a believable man, committed to the resistance, to his family, and perhaps romantically inclined toward Agnete. 

Scenic design is by Chad Eric Bergman, lighting by Bryan Byars and sound by Samuel Fitzwater Butchart. Dagny Mullins is costume designer. Stage manager is Erin Galvin. 

The Danish Play by Three Crows Theatre continues at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St., through June 16. Tickets are pay-what-you-want for performances Thursday-Sunday. Running time is just over two hours, including one intermission. 

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.