In its most ambitious production of the year, the University of Southern Maine theater department closes its season with the English language premiere of the French operetta “In the Underworld.”

Written by French resistance fighter Germaine Tillion, the operetta tells of the author’s personal experiences at the Ravensbruck concentration camp for women in World War II Germany. She was sent to the camp in October 1943 with her mother, who also was a resistance fighter.

Tillion secretly wrote about her experiences, creating a script that demonstrated her ability to overcome abuse and maltreatment at the hands of her German captors. In her writing, she uses comedy to describe the life of the “disposables,” the lowest class of prisoners.

Her mother was killed in the camp. Tillion was released in 1945.

The USM theater department commissioned the English language translation.

Director Meghan Brodie said this production is the first time the show has been produced outside Europe.

Brodie lobbied hard for “In the Underworld,” which features an all-female cast of 11 and a nine-piece orchestra under the direction of Jonathan Marro, who graduated from USM in 2012.

A colleague introduced Brodie to the French script two years ago, suggesting it would be a worthy project for USM. Brodie liked the script, and appreciated Tillion’s use of humor to tell a dark tale.

“The idea that Tillion wrote this while in prison in Ravensbruck and managed to get it smuggled out of camp is an amazing story to me,” said Brodie, an assistant professor of theater.

She used the word “dark” to describe the humor. “But dark illuminated by unexpected moments of hope. For me, it’s about love and how these 11 women support each other.” Brodie said.

Part of their survival technique involved raising each other’s spirits through humor, Brodie said.

Brodie secured funding for a translation, and hired Annie and Karl Bortnick of Philadelphia to do the work.

The couple will attend a post-show discussion on Saturday, along with Christophe Maudot, who arranged and composed the music for the original French production.

USM will present a fully staged production, with minimal props. All 11 singers are on stage the entire show, and all 11 either cut their hair or shaved their heads in solidarity with each other.

“In the Underworld” lasts just under two hours without an intermission. It is set in the camp barracks, a courtyard and a warehouse at Ravensbruck.

The operetta represents a collaboration among theater and history departments, as well as the School of Music.

USM also rallied local and national organizations to support the creation of the English translation of the show. It is co-sponsored by the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine, the Remember the Women Institute of New York and the USM Women and Gender Studies Program.

Tillion kept her script in a drawer in her Paris home for decades, fearful that audiences would not understand her use of humor to describe a situation as dire as the Holocaust.

It got its first production in France in 2007.

Tillion died at age 100 in 2008.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

bkeyes@pressherald.com

Twitter: pphbkeyes