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A CurtainUp Review
Amazons and Their Men
By Elyse Sommer
Now that I've seen Harrison's vision for a play based on Riefenstahl, my impression that he is a playwright to watch stands. The theme of using the beauty of art as a reason to blind oneself to encroaching evil outside the theater (or in Riefenstahl's case, the film set) is well worth exploring, and Riefenstahl is a fascinating figure through whom to channel this theme.
With just four actors and one key prop, a moveable platform, the play quickly and intriguingly establishes the core theme: In its larger context, the German citizens' denial of the evil infecting their nation — and more specifically, a Nazi-connected grandiose filmmaker's delusion that art conquers all. (While no record was ever found of Riefenstahl's party membership, she was very much a Hitler favorite).
Wisocky is a commanding presence as Riefenstahl, known here as The Frau. She's domineering and somewhat scary, but also funny. While no specific mention is made of Triumph of the Will, her famous 1934 propaganda film about a Nazi rally in Nuremberg, the Nazi movement has clearly advanced closer to the 1939 invasion of Poland. Ghetto Jews are forced to wear yellow stars and have difficulty finding jobs. The Frau's work for the Nazis is alluded to by a distant figure (probably Joseph Goebels) who keeps sending her telegrams bringing news of the escalating Nazi war machine and urging her return to propaganda film making. But the Frau wants to make a beautiful, romantic film and so determinedly ignores the telegrams and the danger to which they allude. Instead she moves forward with casting and directing herself in a film version of Heinrich von Kleist's play, Penthesilea, (an actual Riefenthal project) about the Amazon Queen's love for and battle with the Greek hero, Achilles.
The Frau hires a Jewish actor (Brian Sgambati) from the ghetto to play Achilles, partly because he's good but not good enough to outshine her, but also because he comes cheap. When the Frau's sister (Heidi Schreck), a character aptly dubbed The Extra since that's how she's often cast, doesn't work out as Achilles loyal companion Patrocles, the Frau hires the young man (Gio Perez) who delivers those telegrams about the growing Nazi menace. Since he's a Romanian from a Gypsy family, and both he and the play's hero fall passionately in love, that makes the film crew a mini-composite of people persecuted by the Nazis. While jealousy seems to prompt The Frau's outraged reaction to her actors' backstage affair, the events that follow become a parallel in miniature of the Nazis' victimization of Jews, homosexuals and gypsies.
Wisocky is well supported by her small cast, especially by downtown regular Heidi Schreck, who also serves as the play's narrator and conscience. The audience addressing narration is often in the third person, as in Harrison's From Doris to Darlene. It's a technique that works well with Ken Rus Schmoll's simple but highly effective stylized staging. However, with The Extra turning out to be part of the homosexual subplot, that subplot ends up overwhelming the core theme about art being immune to evil no matter how closely it encroaches on the lives of artists as well as ordinary people. In the end, this fascinating, beautifully staged and acted play is as much, if not more, worth seeing for its style than its substance.