In one of those strange twists of fate that defy logical explanation, actress Jacqueline Bertrand, a French Canadian Catholic, is now working in her fourth play about the Holocaust. She is playing Fania Fenelon in "Playing for Time," in the stage version of Arthur Miller's television drama, which opens next week at the Studio Theatre.
"So many of my Jewish actress friends are stunned," she said, "but I don't think they are resentful."
Her first Holocaust project was five years ago, when she spent a season at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. Lonely for her husband and two children (the oldest is a student at Columbia University), she decided to spend her idle hours devising a play based on a book about the poems and drawings done by children in a Nazi concentration camp. The project, "I Never Saw Another Butterfly," led her to research the subject and resulted in a production that she staged with another director.
Later Bertrand, who had given up acting for 11 years while her children were young, was in "Scream," by Arthur Laurents, playing a Jewish Holocaust survivor who runs a hairdressing salon in Brooklyn. Last year she was asked to play the title role in "Annulla, an Autobiography," Emily Mann's one-woman play about another Holocaust survivor, which was produced in St. Louis.
"I became a pain to my Jewish friends," she said bluntly. "I knew so much, and I insisted on showing off all my knowledge. It became a little frightening."
She has talked to several survivors, and has felt self-conscious about not being either Jewish or European. "The only thing I can do is be as honest and sincere as I can. Actors are like sponges. They take in other people's souls. That was why they were not allowed to be buried in Christian cemeteries until the 18th century."
One person whose memory was strong as Bertrand prepared for these roles was her mother-in-law, an Austrian Jewish actress who moved to the United States in the 1930s. "There is something very different about European women," Bertrand said. "They are louder and stronger. Women here today are whinier and always worrying about our beauty and health. I don't know if we could stand what they went through. We're too soft. I try to understand that strength, and that hatred between the Poles and the Jews, which is something we are not raised with, that intense hatred."
The role of Fenelon came to her in a roundabout way. Originally Washington chanteuse Karen Akers was approached by director Joy Zinoman, but turned the role down. (The part calls for a musician.) Bertrand, who wants to develop her singing into a club act, knows Akers' manager. She learned of the part, contacted Zinoman and decided that the part -- as well as the chance to sing -- was too good to miss.
"I said if they could pay me enough to live, and get me a place to live that was near the theater -- I have no sense of direction -- I could do it," she said. The low-budget Studio normally pays $50 a week, but lately negotiated a waiver contract with the Actors Equity union that allows the theater to hire someone like Bertrand for less than scale. Adding to the inducements, Zinoman even lent Bertrand her son's bike for transportation. She knew Washington slightly from a previous production, "Nest of the Wood Grouse" at the Kennedy Center.
The play has proved to be "very wrenching" for the cast, not the least because it is constructed in short, filmlike scenes that require difficult transitions. Aside from the emotional demands, half the female cast of 24 will be getting their heads shaved this week.
"Our whole family was famous for having incredibly beautiful hair," Bertrand said wistfully, fingering her silver-blond locks that were once waist length. "My mother washed our hair in Oxydol so it would shine . . . But you have to get over these private traumas."
All tickets to tomorrow night's performance of "Avner the Eccentric" in the Kreeger Theater will cost only 35 cents in honor of Arena Stage's 35th anniversary. The box office will open at 10 a.m., and it's first come, first served. When Arena first opened on Aug. 10, 1950, with "She Stoops to Conquer," the top prices were $1.90 for evening performances and $1.50 for matinees . . .
Some tickets for the National Theatre's gala performance of "La Cage aux Folles" on Sept. 12 have the wrong curtain time printed on them. The show that night starts at 7 p.m.
Understudy auditions for the part of Maria in "West Side Story" will be held today at 4 p.m. at the Kennedy Center. You must be brunet, under 30 and able to sing and dance. Be prepared to sing "Tonight" and "I Have a Love," bring photos and re'sume', and report to the Kennedy Center Opera House stage door. Don't call, just show up.
Eileen Brennan will play the lusty widow Maxine in the Jeanne Moreau production of "Night of the Iguana," which will have its pre-Broadway tryout at the Morris Mechanic in Baltimore. Roy Dotrice is playing the aged grandfather . . . Horizons Theatre is having a benefit reception in connection with its presentation of a Bravo Award to producer Bonnie Nelson Schwartz on Sept. 22 at the Arts Club of Washington. Arthur Cantor, who produced the hit "Pack of Lies" with Schwartz this year in New York, is cochair of the event along with Arena's Tom Fichandler . . . Lewis Allen, producer of the current "The Iceman Cometh," among a long list of credits, was given an honorary doctorate in humanities from Shenandoah College and Conservatory of Music in Winchester, Va., yesterday. Allen is from Winchester . . . A benefit for the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger (its new and longer name) will be held at the library tomorrow, featuring a show of Chanel fashions. Call 547-3230.